Jul 18, 2017 I Brent Swancer

Miraculous Cases of People Who Lived Without a Brain

One of the most mysteries places in our strange universe is our own bodies. Here within every one of us are vast realms of perplexing riddles which medical science have yet to fully understand. Just when we think we have the human body figured out, some new oddity will pop up out of this landscape of puzzles to baffle and confound. One very bizarre phenomenon that seems to defy everything we think we know about our bodies is that of various people who have come into this world without any significant brain, yet who have not only managed to survive, but to thrive, living for years while showing consciousness, awareness, and in some cases even functioning as a normal member of society. Although the brain is one of the most mysterious domains of our bodies there is, these accounts of people living without a brain are mind-boggling, and show us just how little we really know about the mysteries of the human body.

One of the more well-known and indeed deeply bizarre cases of a person surviving without a brain is the story of little Aaron Murray, of Lanarkshire, Scotland, who was born in 2013 with a severe case of a condition known as Hydranencephaly, in which the brain is unformed or only partially developed. Although very rare, usually babies with this condition die before birth, or at best a few minutes or hours after coming into the world, and this was the prognosis given for Aaron as well, with doctors saying he had only moments to live and that his condition was imminently fatal and as they said, "incompatible with life." In Aaron’s case, he was born with merely a brain stem, with the rest of the brain completely missing. An attendant doctor would say of Aaron’s bizarre brain scan thus:

A normal brain scan should show the brain filling all the head cavity up to the top. The brain itself would show as a white area, with black pockets of fluid running around the outside of the brain and through the brain, which allows the transmission of vitamins and to clean itself of toxins. On Aaron’s scan the brain stem comes up and stops underneath the cavity which is filled with fluid.

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Brain scan of Aaron Murray showing the brain stem. The rest of the skull is filled with fluid.

Yet the minutes passed, then hours, then weeks, and he was still alive, much to the surprise of baffled doctors everywhere, breathing on his own and seemingly in fairly good health considering the complete absence of a brain. After 8 weeks of observation and surgeries to reduce fluid build up, Aaron was allowed to return home with his family, and at this point it was still strongly believed that he would soon die. Aaron would defy this prognosis, not only surviving, but showing an awareness of his surroundings and the people he was with, showing other cognitive abilities such as giggling, smiling, playing with his older brother Jack, watching his favorite shows on TV, and in the most impressive case saying the word “Mummy” when he was two years old, far beyond his expected life span. His mother, Emma Murray, would say of this:

I was told he might live for three minutes, three hours or three days. The doctors told me if it had been any of his other organs which had failed to grow, they would have been able to do something but they couldn’t grow him another brain. But right from the very beginning, Aaron proved he is a real fighter. The other day I was saying ‘Mummy’ to him. I was clapping my hands and he was giggling away. He looked at me, and said ‘Mummy’ back. He had literally copied what I was saying. I just stared at him in shock, and then I just burst into tears. It was such an emotional moment. I couldn’t believe it. I’d been told my son would only live for a few minutes, but now here he was saying ‘Mummy’ - something I never thought I would ever hear. I never thought I would ever hear him say anything at all - I burst into tears when he said ‘mummy.’ It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard in my whole life.

Emma Murray and her son Aaron
Aaron Murray with his mother, Emma

He has since reportedly said other words, such as “Hello,” showing a puzzling cognitive sophistication for a child who should be a complete vegetable and who should not even be alive at all. With only a brain stem, Aaron should only be capable of the basest survival mechanisms, such as breathing and keeping the internal organs working properly, yet he apparently shows a good amount of awareness of what is going on around him. With his profound lack of brain, he wouldn’t be expected to giggle when someone is near, play with others, open presents, or watch TV, and he especially should not be able to talk. Even after all of these years of beating the odds and surviving minus a brain he should have no more mental function than a newborn, and this is an aspect of his case that continues to confound the medical community. One doctor, a Jill Yaz, from the Association for Spina Bifidia and Hydrocephalus, has said of Aaron Murray’s miraculous condition:

The brain stem controls the basic functions that we need to survive. It keeps the heart going, controls breathing and keeps organs like the intestines working. It also controls basic things like swallowing. So this is how Aaron has managed to survive so far. As long as the brain stem is there performing these functions, then he is able to survive. But what is remarkable about this case is that the brain stem doesn’t control our thinking or consciousness, so the fact that he can do things like giggle and smile and say a basic word like ‘Mummy’ is fascinating. There is no known explanation for it. I’ve never seen anything like this brain scan in 20 years. It is remarkable that he has managed to survive and say ‘Mummy’ for the first time - it shows how little we really understand about how the human body works. And the body can surprise us and do remarkable things.

Although he cannot stand or walk on his own, Aaron Murray has proven to be a modern medical miracle. Another rather amazing case is that of Jaxon Buell, of Tavares, Florida, who was similarly born with no brain past the brain stem, in this case suffering from a defect called anencephaly, which is the absence of major portions of the brain and skull. In Jaxon’s case, he has only a brain stem and is missing a cerebellum and much of his skull. The condition was spotted early in the pregnancy, but the Buells decided to go through with it even though doctors were adamant that the baby would not come to full term. When Jaxon defiantly came into the world on Aug. 17, 2014, missing a brain and most of his skull, doctors expected Jaxon to die almost immediately, yet he did not. Not only did Jaxon survive, but he has gone on to live for years, and similarly to Aaron Murray’s case he has shown a distinct awareness of his surroundings, even speaking words such as “mama” and “daddy,” and most recently “I love you” to his mother. Jaxon’s father, Brandon Bruell, has said of this miraculous journey:

Every doctor we’ve talked to is fascinated that Jaxon is here today, and they can no longer predict a prognosis, although we know the reality behind this better than anyone else, what Jaxon is up against, and that his life is already miraculous at this point. He’s back to smiling at us, always so happy in the morning after he wakes up and takes turns looking at both Mommy’s and Daddy’s face, seemingly as if he is so excited to start another day.

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Jaxon Buell with his mother, Brittany Buell

Although Jaxon has been occasionally plagued by some health problems, he has continued to defy the odds and provide inspiration and courage for thousands as he has thrived. How is it that this boy born without a brain could last so long and adjust so well? It has remained a mystery, but it is hoped that his incredible survival will open the door to better understanding Jaxon’s condition and how the human body works. It is an amazing tale indeed, and I wish the best to Jaxon and his family.

Other equally incredible and baffling cases are out there as well, such as the case of Kaliysha Barrett, who was born with only a partially operational brain stem and no cerebral cortex, but has managed to live to be 6-years-old, as well as another girl named Alex Simpson, of Omaha, Nebraska, who has lived to over 10-years old without a brain while showing remarkable awareness and recognition of her surroundings, as well as appropriate responses to various stimuli. Joining these ranks is a boy named Trevor Judge Waltrip, of Shreveport, Louisiana, who was born in 2001 without a brain and managed to live to 12 years old before finally dying peacefully in his sleep. Although blind and unable to speak, Trevor allegedly was quite alert and showed emotional responses and bonding with family members, recognizing those he loved and interacting with them. The list goes on, with numerous other similarly miraculous stories.

It is not even just babies and children who live with this affliction, and although it may seem like people without brains may be doomed to die at a very early age, there are surprisingly cases of those who have lived into adulthood without a fully developed brain. One of the most widely known and remarkable of these cases first appeared in an article in a 2007 Lancet study, which described a 44-year-old French civil servant who went to the hospital complaining of weakness in his leg and surprised everyone, including himself, when it was found that he had only a tiny amount of brain material in his skull, with the rest being filled with fluid. The man had nevertheless lived a normal life, had a regular job, a wife, and kids, and although he had the rather low IQ of 75 was not considered to be mentally handicapped. The man had not been aware that there was anything wrong with him, even though it was surmised that with the amount of brain matter he was missing he should not have even been conscious, let alone a functioning member of society, and his case has gone on to astound and baffle the medical world. One cognitive psychologist from the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium named Axel Cleeremans believes that this man defies traditional understanding of the brain, that the man should not be conscious at all, and has said of the case:

Any theory of consciousness has to be able to explain why a person like that, who's missing 90 percent of his neurons, still exhibits normal behavior.

This would not be the only adult to go through life normally without realizing that they did not have a functioning brain. In 2014 in China, one 24-year-old woman checked into a hospital in Shandong Province after experiencing bouts of dizziness and nausea. Upon questioning, doctors found that the woman had always had trouble walking, and that she had only started speaking when she was 6 years of age, which prompted them to take a brain scan of the woman. What they would find would stun them.

In the place where her cerebellum should be was merely an empty space full of fluid. This part pf the brain, which translates as “little brain,” holds around 50 percent of the brain’s neurons and is largely responsible for motor control, balance, motor learning, and voluntary movements, as well as assorted cognitive functions. It is an essential part of the brain, and the fact that this woman was functioning fairly normally without it was seen as rater astounding, and in almost every known case of a person missing this region the patient has died at a very young age. The only ill effects she seemed to show at all were some minor impairments in motor function and slightly slurred speech, amazing since she should not have even been walking or speaking at all. She should not have even been alive. Indeed, only 9 people are known to have survived for any appreciable length of time without a cerebellum, a condition called cerebellar agenesis, and in all of these cases they displayed severe symptoms and handicaps. This woman was practically normal.

Although doctors are unsure of how this woman was so able to successfully overcome the missing cerebellum and thrive without one, it is thought that other parts of her brain had somehow adapted to take over the functions that would have normally been handled by her cerebellum. This is an area poorly understood by the medical community, and has been seen as an exciting avenue of research into the resilient plasticity of the human brain and how it works. One doctor Max Muenke, from the National Human Genome Research Institute, has said of this:

What I find amazing to this day is how the brain can deal with something which you think should not be compatible with life.

Such cases as we have looked at here open up the door to a whole new world of weirdness involving the human brain, how it works, and where our consciousness resides. The traditional view is that we simply need a brain to live, that this is what makes us who we are and holds our "self," yet what of these cases where people are missing large portions of or even all of their brains, yet show cognition, personality, and understanding? Is it possible that our consciousness is not confined to any one region of the brain, and that it is a flexible force that is malleable and adaptable?

There have been many who have come forward in recent years to challenge our beliefs on what constitutes consciousness and what role the brain plays in it, and have suggested that our consciousness may be spread out over a variety of areas of the brain. One hypothesis called “'radical plasticity thesis” proposes that rather than being born with a consciousness, the brain instead learns the state of consciousness over and over again, meaning that this process can be performed by different brain regions depending on the circumstances. In this hypothesis, consciousness is flexible in that it is not confined to any one area, and is the result of the brain constantly re-describing and reviewing its own memories and activities with itself to ultimately form our self awareness. Therefore, if a person has even a fraction of their brain neurons remaining, then these neurons hypothetically have the ability to create a “theory of themselves” and the person can retain their consciousness. Dr. Axel Cleeremans, who first proposed this idea in 2011, has said of it:

Consciousness is the brain’s non-conceptual theory about itself, gained through experience - that is learning, interacting with itself, the world, and with other people.

This hypothesis fits in nicely with our dawning realization that the human brain is more adaptable than previously thought and its ability to survive trauma mighty. In many ways we have barely scratched the surface of what mysteries our brains hold, and have little understanding of what consciousness is and what generates it. The cases we have looked at here pose many questions. How are these people able to survive and even function normally in society without large portions of their brains? How can they even be alive or cognizant at all? What is our consciousness and where does it reside? How does our brain work and what is it truly capable of? These are questions that lie out over the horizon and which we may someday finally understand, but for now we have these tantalizing glimpses into this enigmatic realm of medical mystery.

Brent Swancer

Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.

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