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Thrones Star Can Speak While Lacking “Quite a Bit” of Brain. How?

Yes, Emilia Clarke is lucky her aneurysms weren’t worse but, given our brains’ complexity, how do our mental abilities survive?

Game of Thrones (2011–2019) star Emilia Clarke, who suffered two aneurysms in her twenties, told BBC News that “‘quite a bit’ of her brain no longer functions” after the extensive bleeding and surgeries:

“There’s quite a bit missing, which always makes me laugh,” Clarke said, speaking about her brain. “Strokes, basically, as soon as any part of your brain doesn’t get blood for a second, it’s gone. So, the blood finds a different route to get around, but then whatever bit is missing is therefore gone.” …

Clarke said at the time that the surgery left her with “a deep paranoia” over whether it would prevent her from continuing a career as an actor. But she went on to star in multiple additional seasons of “Game of Thrones,” as well as a number of movies.

Emily Mae Czachor, “Emilia Clarke reflects on “remarkable” ability to speak despite losing “quite a bit” of her brain to aneurysms” at CBS News (July 19, 2022)

Clarke is unusually lucky, to be sure. But a question naturally arises: Shouldn’t her good fortune be impossible? The human brain is staggeringly complex. Suppose a man said, “I am one of a really small minority of people who fell twenty thousand feet from a plane and survived, despite my injuries…” We’d want to know more.

And yet, as we’ve noted earlier, people get by with split brains, a brain missing key components, or only half a brain, (or maybe less).

Florey Institute neuroscientist Anthony Hannan, author of over 150 papers and cited 7000 times, tackles the question:

It’s not that the brain has evolved to deal with brain trauma or stroke or aneurysms; our ancestors normally died when that happened and may not have gone on to reproduce. In fact, we evolved very thick skulls to try to prevent brain trauma happening at all.

No, this neural plasticity is a result of our brains evolving to be learning machines. They allow us to adapt to changing environments, to facilitate learning, memory and flexibility. This functionality also means the brain can adapt after certain injuries, finding new pathways to function.

A lot of organs wouldn’t recover at all after serious damage. But the brain keeps developing through life. At a microscopic level, you’re changing the brain to make new memories every day.

This extraordinary kilogram and a half of soft tissue sitting in your skull – with more power and capacity than even the most powerful supercomputer – has an incredible ability to adapt.

Anthony Hannan, “Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke is missing ‘quite a bit’ of her brain. How can people survive and thrive after brain injury?” at The Conversation (July 19, 2022)

In a nice way, Dr. Hannan is saying that we really don’t know why the brain is so complex, yet can adapt to such severe losses. We can see the advantages of our brains “evolving to be learning machines.” But they were like that even before there was neurosurgery. It’s still a conundrum.

Dr. Hannan does mention one possible clue though. Discussing neuroplasticity in general (how our nervous systems adapt to change by rewiring themselves), he notes,

But there’s another form of plasticity called neurogenesis. This involves little pockets in the brain where new neurons continue to be born throughout life. And there’s evidence that after brain injury these neural stem cells can be stimulated and migrate to the area of injury and make new neurons.

(July 19, 2022)

Anthony Hannan, “Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke is missing ‘quite a bit’ of her brain. How can people survive and thrive after brain injury?” at The Conversation
Anthony Hannan

From the neurogenesis site at the University of Queensland, we learn that nerve cells proliferate when we are embryos (neurogenesis) but the process continues, though greatly slowed down, through life:

Until recently, neuroscientists believed that the central nervous system, including the brain, was incapable of neurogenesis and unable to regenerate. However, stem cells were discovered in parts of the adult brain in the 1990s, and adult neurogenesis is now accepted to be a normal process that occurs in the healthy brain.

Adult neurogenesis is only part of the story, but it’s a critical one: Research may be able to help the many people who are less lucky than Clarke by stimulating their brains to produce more replacement neurons later in life.

You may also wish to read: Yes, the human brain is the most complex thing in the universe. But that’s not even the most remarkable thing about our brains. Our complex brains mirror the universe — 27 orders of magnitude bigger — yet some humans function with only half a brain or split brains.

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Thrones Star Can Speak While Lacking “Quite a Bit” of Brain. How?