Rare brain injury disorder turns victims into savants

By now, most of us are familiar with the most common symptoms of a head injury, even those of us fortunate enough never to experience serious brain trauma. Media coverage of concussions has educated the public to the headaches, nausea, cognitive impairments and emotional problems common to many sufferers.

Many readers are also likely aware that the brain remains a mysterious organ, despite all the scientific research into its workings that is going on all the time. No two traumatic brain injuries are exactly the same, and in rare cases, the patient experiences very unusual symptoms — even seeming to benefit from the trauma, at least on the surface.

One example is Savant Syndrome, an extremely rare condition in which a TBI actually increases cognitive ability in areas like art or math. The patient spontaneous develops an advanced ability to paint, compose music or perform calculus, when he or she had little to no interest or ability in such fields before the injury.

In one case recently detailed by ABC News, a woman fell into a ravine while working on a ranch. She suffered severe brain and spinal injuries and nearly died. Before her injuries, she was an extrovert who had no interest in art or math.

Today, she is a gifted artist and poet who uses drawings and mathematical equations to interpret the world. She also has synesthesia, a condition in which the senses become mixed; she can “see” sounds and “hear” colors while listening to music.

But these skills have come at a huge cost. The woman totally lost her memory of her life before the accident. She also no longer feels emotion, and had to relearn many social cues.

The vast majority of TBI sufferers experience no form of spontaneous genius. Indeed, brain injuries can be highly debilitating and devastating, which is why those responsible for the trauma are considered liable for the victim’s injuries.