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Frankenstein: A modern postmortem

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Frankenstein's Monster

This Halloween, whether you’re watching a scary movie from the sanctity of your bed or witnessing your friends make DIY costumes from Goodwill, you may begin to wonder how Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” managed to accomplish a feat that would make modern scientists turn green with envy. 

Last Wednesday, UW neuroscience graduate student Kaitlyn Casimo explored the science behind one of literature’s most famous monsters. Casimo works at the Grid Lab Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering and volunteers at the Pacific Science Center (PSC), where she gives guest lectures for their “Science in the City” series.  

Casimo began by explaining that the exterior of all our brains are virtually identical. The variations between them exist at the cellular level. During the brain transplant in “Frankenstein,” the lack of consistent blood supply and oxygen during the transplant would result in the brain essentially being wiped clean of its previous memories. Without blood or oxygen, the brain synapses start to break down, but a brain transplant could hypothetically be possible. 

A modern-day movie example of this is the movie “Get Out,” which was brought up in the Q&A portion. In this film, the brain was constantly oxygenated during the transplant so the new host retained their memories and personality. Casimo likened the brain to a hard drive that can be wiped clean by extended periods of oxygen deprivation. 

There are a lot of challenges associated with brain transplants, including needing to reattach nerve stumps to fresh nerves and dealing with anti immune rejection drugs, but growing a brand new brain from scratch would be even harder. Biological hurdles like growing individual nerve cells and the creation of synapses make brain revival a much more likely candidate for future research. 

In her speech, Casimo came to the conclusion that Frankenstein likely reanimated and salvaged a brain for his monster due to the challenges involved with growing a brain. With the origins of the monster’s brain unveiled, Casimo turned her attention to behavioral analysis. According to Casimo, Frankenstein’s monster exhibited behavior which resembled both the rehabilitation of individuals after serious trauma and that of children undergoing childhood development. 

When it came to motor control, Frankenstein’s monster was uncoordinated and unconfident. His movements were strangely childlike and improved throughout the novel. He learned language at an incredibly rapid pace, likely stemming from the still-present pathways in his brain. Casimo said language may have been dormant in his donated brain, meaning he simply had to relearn the language and movement skills which the brain had already known before. 

For all of Dr. Frankenstein’s medical accomplishments, he had an equally long list of ethical violations. The most notable offences were grave robbing, the unauthorized use of body parts without consent given from the donors in their lifetime, and no academic oversight on the experiments. 

The crowd at the PSC was especially interested in Frankenstein’s use of electricity to bring his monster back to life and how that plays into the modern science of reanimation. Casimo explained that the electricity used by Frankenstein likely decreased the rehabilitation of the monster’s brain significantly, as it would have an effect on the body that would have been essentially like that of a seizure. 

Shelley created one of science fiction’s spookiest celebrities, but she also inspired almost two centuries — 199 years and 10 months to be exact — of medical pioneers. Slowly but surely, the medical miracles she wrote throughout her famous novel are becoming less science fiction and more science fact.


Reach writer Joy Geerkens at Twitter: @JoyGeerkens 

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