WORDS FROM OUR PRESIDENT
Short story: A 10-year-old boy falls off his bike. By all accounts, his fall is mild. Following this incident, however, he starts experiencing seizures which become increasingly frequent, often several times a day. These seizures cannot be controlled by medications, and the boy becomes increasingly incapacitated, dropping out of school and later unable to hold a job. The boy’s name was Henry Molaison, or HM as he became to be better known.
Seventy years ago - on the 1st of September 1953 - at the age of 27, Henry underwent a pioneering brain operation to remove what was thought to be the origin of his seizures. William Scoville removed Henry’s both hippocampi. As neurosurgeons often say, “the operation was a success, the patient survived”. Indeed, Henry did survive but also became densely amnesic, unable to remember any new information for more than a few second unless it was continuously rehearsed. Scoville, together with Brenda Milner reported the case of Henry in 1957 in a seminal article published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.
Henry’s unfortunate outcome was a critical milestone in our understanding of the biological bases of human cognition. Scoville and Milner’s article, cited nearly 10,000 times, demonstrated the importance of the hippocampus to episodic memory functions, and has led to over 13,000 scientific articles on the topic of episodic memory since 1968! HM himself participated in many of these studies, first with Brenda Milner in Montreal, then with Suzanne Corkin at MIT, the last time in 2006, only a couple of years before he passed away1. Remarkably, seventy years later, the mechanisms by which new memories are organised, laid down and later retrieved are still incompletely understood. Similarly, although the role of the hippocampus in memory is not under debate, its exact functions still are, as are the contributions of other brain regions towards this function.
Fascination for memory by the scientific and clinical community is not entirely surprising. Memory is a wonderful thing! In addition to allowing us to reminisce about the past, it is intimately linked to our survival. It allows us to navigate the world, solve problems and acquire knowledge, create social networks and have meaningful relationships. It is also linked to creativity, allowing us to project ourselves in the future, and therefore plan future actions that will contribute to our quality of life. But what this story also demonstrates is the importance of single-case experiments in understanding human behaviour. Although a lot is being said about experimental design, power calculation and sample size, many breakthroughs have come about from careful examinations of single patients. This highlights the importance for clinicians to remain curious: you never know where your next patient will lead to.
I am telling you all this because I have been reminiscing about my tenure as President of ASSBI. Indeed, I am sad to announce that this will be my last ‘words from the President’ as I will be handing over the reins of the Presidency to Dana Wong at the Annual General Meeting in May. In spite of the challenging times, this has been a privilege to serve ASSBI during these past two years. I want to thank the members of the Executive Committee for helping me during this time and for their continuing contribution to making ASSBI such a wonderful and welcoming association. I also want to thank Margaret Eagers for her help and support during that time. As I bid you farewell, fear not: I will still be around for the foreseeable future and I hope to see many of you in Darwin at the ASSBI Annual Conference.
Until next time, stay well and stay safe.
Olivier Piguet, President, ASSBI
1 Corkin S. (2013). Permanent present tense. The man with no memory and what he taught the world. Allen Lane.