Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Sir Charles Bell, Sylvester Stallone and Mona Lisa – what is the connection…

Nerves are really bundles of cables (actually nerve cells) that run from our brains to various parts of our body that enable us to perceive, feel and interact with all the stimuli that confront our bodies over our waking and sleeping lives. There are nerves that sense (sensory) and nerves that help us move (motor). The most important among these nerves are the ones that emerge from our brains (also called cranial nerves) as opposed to ones that emerge from our spine. The cranial nerves (about 12 in number) control everything from smell, vision, hearing, tasting to our digestion.. Two hundred years back, very little of this was known and it was left to individual motivated anatomists and surgeons to discover during their treatment of illnesses to reach conclusions about various nerves and the tasks that they perform inside our bodies.

Sir Charles Bell (above), born in 1774 was such a person. He died last month a hundred and sixty five years ago. He was a surgeon, neuro-anatomist, and artist all rolled into one. Bought up by his mother in rural England (his father died young), he was taught to appreciate the visual arts at a very young age. He enrolled for medical school and was so good at human anatomy that at 25 he wrote a dissection book ‘A System of Dissection’ that went to press almost immediately. As soon as he completed medical school, he decided to open up a school to teach anatomy only to be disbarred from affiliation to his alma mater because they feared that he was competition. By and by he went onto publish 'Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting' and 'A New Idea of the Anatomy of the Brain and Nervous System'. His surgical experience was bought to the fore during the Battle of Waterloo where he got to treat a huge number of facial gunshot wounds and their effects on the human face. This led him to study the nerves that effect the human facial expressions and musculature. This also led him to prove that cranial nerve number seven was responsible for controlling the expression on a human face. I think this insight was gleaned from his study of art, but I am sure that medical historians would attribute it to his medical training. All of the grimaces, laughter and the expressions that we see in everyday life is really controlled by this single nerve... Society decided to honor him by naming a motor disease after him called 'Bells Palsy'. This is a degeneration of the abovementioned seventh cranial nerve that causes motor problems with any one side of the human face. Charles Bell was later knighted and went onto carry on a distinguished career in the arts and medicine until he died in 1842.


The one person that I can think of who expresses this syndrome is Sylvester Stallone. The macho looking expression stems from his inability to correctly articulate some portions on the left side of his face in response to his perception of emotions.


C'mon, what is a story without a punchline…


Some speculate that the curious and enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa might be the result of Bell’s palsy. A very careful examination reveals an asymmetric smile (very subtle but noticeable) very consistent with symptoms associated with unilateral (single sided) motor nerve lesions commonly associated with Bell Palsy.

Mona Lisa is in good company. Among others John McCain, Andrew Lloyd Weber and John Travolta live with this condition…

2 comments:

Hungry Hyaena said...

A fascinating little post, Sunil. Totally out of left field, but the most interesting thing I've read today.

Sunil said...

Chris,
I am glad you enjoyed the last bit. I enjoyed writing this one as it fit into my general interests...