What Open-Air Nuclear Tests Tell Us About the Brain

Science & Space

In 1953, the man known during his lifetime only as H.M. underwent neurosurgery to cure his severe epilepsy. The operation inadvertently destroyed most of his hippocampus, a brain structure nobody realized at the time was crucial to the formation of memories. From the age of 27 until his death in 2008, at 82, Henry Molaison—whose name was eventually revealed—could essentially learn nothing new at all.

No responsible person would perform that sort of surgery today, just as no responsible nation would conduct an open-air nuclear test. But the two situations, it turns out, are weirdly related. A commentary in the latest Science, based on a recent study in Cell, explains how nuclear bomb tests provide clear evidence that the hippocampus constantly generates new neurons throughout life. “At the behavioral level,” writes author Gerd Kempermann, of the  Technical University of Dresden, Germany, “adult neurogenesis adds a particular type…

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