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From One Man's Damaged Brain, A Treasure Trove Of Research On Memory


Kent Cochrane, an amnesiac known widely as KC, died this year at 62. After a motorcycle accident in 1981, Cochrane lost the use of a part of his brain that had been considered essential for memory. He then shocked his doctors by being able to remember some things - facts, but not personal memories. That fundamentally changed our understanding of how the brain remembers. Shayna Rosenbaum is a principal investigator at the Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Toronto's York University, and she worked directly with KC.

SHAYNA ROSENBAUM: He would remember people that he knew from prior to the time of his injury, so he knew who his parents were. He knew what friends that he had in the past. He knew how he had formed those relationships. But what he was unable to remember were details relating to those individuals. For instance, he wouldn't remember the last time that he had laughed with one of those individuals. He couldn't remember his own high school graduation, even though he knew that he had graduated.

RATH: Can you tell us how this understanding of how these brain structures work when it comes to memory - what it means for science or even helping people who might have suffered memory loss or brain damage?

ROSENBAUM: Well, the structure of the brain, the hippocampus, which is responsible for forming new memories and for retaining old ones is vulnerable to a wide range of neurological conditions, including not only head injury, but also Alzheimer's disease, encephalitis, epilepsy. So many people, unfortunately, suffer from certain forms of memory loss. But what we've learned is that not all forms of memory are affected, so memory is not just one thing. And we've learned from cases like KC that patients can, in fact, rely on the types of memories that are spared, such as memory for facts about the world and about oneself in order to compensate for those aspects that are impaired.

RATH: You worked with KC - with Ken Cochrane - directly. Did he understand the importance of what was being learned from his condition?

ROSENBAUM: I believe that in the moment, he did. When we drew his attention to the many contributions that he had made to our understanding of memory, he himself was blown away. He would often show amazement when we would show him a newspaper article that was written about him. And when we explained how we now understand that memory is not one thing based on studies involving him, he really did seem to appreciate the types of contributions that this made to our understanding of memory.

RATH: Shayna Rosenbaum is a principal investigator in the Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at York University in Toronto. Thanks so much.

ROSENBAUM: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.