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The Curious Case of the Woman with No Cerebellum

Not sure how many of you have read about this by now, but it is such an amazing finding I decided to write about it (even though I retweeted this yesterday). 

This study is a clinical case report of a living patient with cerebellar   agenesis, an extremely rare condition characterized by the absence of the cerebellum. The cause is currently unknown, there are limited reported cases of complete cerebellar  agenesis, and most of what we know about the condition comes from autopsy reports instead of living patients. Moreover, the condition is difficult to study because most individuals with complete primary cerebellar agenesis are infants or children with severe mental impairment, epilepsy, hydrocephaly and other gross lesions of the CNS. The fact that this woman is alive and has a somewhat “normal” life is ground-breaking and presents a unique opportunity to study the condition.

The patient described in the study is 24 years old. She has mild mental impairment and moderate motor deficits. For example, she is unable to walk steadily and commonly experiences dizziness/nausea. She also has speech problems and cannot run or jump. However, she has no history of neurological disorders and even gave birth without any complications. 

Importantly, as shown above, CT  and MRI scans revealed no presence of recognizable cerebellar structures. Just look at that dark sport towards the back of the brain! In addition to these findings, magnetic resonance angiography also demonstrated vascular characteristics of this patient consistent with complete cerebellar agenesis- meaning that the arteries that normally supply this area were also absent bilaterally. How crazy is that? Futhermore, diffusion tensor imaging  indicated a complete lack of the efferent and afferent limbs of the cerebellum. 

Given that the cerebellum is responsible for both motor and non-motor functions, these results are pretty amazing. How can the brain compensate for such a heavy blow to its architecture and connectivity? According to the authors of the study: 

This surprising phenomenon supports the concept of extracerebellar motor system plasticity, especially cerebellum loss, occurring early in life. We conclude that the cerebellum is necessary for normal motor, language functional and mental development even in the presence of the functional compensation phenomenon.


Yu, F., Jiang, Q., Sun, X., and Zhang, R. (2014). A new case of complete primary cerebellar a genesis: clinical and imaging findings in a living patient. Braindoi: 10.1093/brain/awu239


Nuclear Catastrophe: How Much Risk are You Willing to Accept? With Eric Schlosser

Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser describes the terrifyingly close calls we’ve had with nuclear weapons and the incredibly high odds that such a disaster will occur. (It’s 100%). Schlosser is the author of Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (


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Do Whales Think They’re Dolphins?

Apparently whales now think they’re dolphins. New research demonstrates vocal learning in killer whales, which have used the talent to copy noises of bottlenose dolphins and apply them to inappropriate social contexts.

Animals make all sorts of sounds, from gobbles and coos to barks and quacks. And while each has its own distinctive sound, some species - humans included - have developed a talent for imitating new noises. Killer whales, it seems, are one species that dabbles in this type of mimicry.

Researchers found that when killer whales (Orcinus orca) mingled with bottlenose dolphins, they shifted the types of sounds they made to more closely match their social partners. Vocal learning, as its known, has also been observed in bats, some birds, and cetaceans, which includes whales and dolphins. But studying the neural pathways behind the imitation is more difficult in large marine animals.

Killer whales have complex vocal repertoires made up of clicks, whistles and pulsed calls - repeated brief bursts of sound punctuated with silence. And like humans, whales have different dialects based on their varying acoustic features, such as their duration, pitch and pulse pattern.

"There’s been an idea for a long time that killer whales learn their dialect, but it isn’t enough to say they all have different dialects so therefore they learn. There needs to be some experimental proof so you can say how well they learn and what context promotes learning," senior scientist Dr. Ann Bowles said in astatement.

Bowles and her team decided to study old recordings of vocalization patterns from the cetaceans, and compare them with those of whales that had socialized with bottlenose dolphins. They found that all three killer whales that had been housed with dolphins for several years shifted their vocal range to more closely resemble that of a dolphin’s. Specifically, they produced more clicks and whistles and fewer pulsed calls.

What’s more, the researchers discovered that killer whales can even produce entirely new sounds. One whale learned to produce a chirp sequence that human caretakers had taught to its dolphin poolmates.

"Killer whales seem to be really motivated to match the features of their social partners," Bowles added.

Bowles and colleagues suspect that this form of flattery, so to speak, will be useful amidst climate change, where whales may need to adapt their communication strategies in accordance with shifting social groups and territories as oceans warm.

The findings were published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.

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