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Surprising Science

Savant Syndrome: When Brain Injuries Create Geniuses

There are just 30 people worldwide whose brain injuries have rewired their brains in ways that allow them to perform amazing feats. But now a machine replicates the process with some success. 

What’s the Latest Development?

After Derek Amato sustained brain damage by hitting his head on the bottom of a swimming pool, he began playing classical piano compositions without a single lesson. He is one of just 30 people worldwide with acquired savant syndrome. In 2003, scientists began to understand more about the syndrome by examining people who developed substantial artistic abilities while suffering from degenerative brain diseases. Wisconsin psychiatrist Darold Treffert, who keeps a registry of known savants, believes that other regions of the brain step in to compensate for a loss of function in one area, rewiring the brain in unforeseen ways.

What’s the Big Idea?

As physicians come to understand more about acquired savants, might it be possible to reproduce the effect in otherwise normal individuals? A device called the Medtronic Mag Pro has shown some success in causing the kind of “brain damage” seen among acquired savants by sending electromagnetic pulses into the brain’s frontal lobes. In an anecdotal case, one individual was able to draw increasingly convincing pictures of cats without possessing any drawing skills. If you could choose to be an acquired savant, perhaps sacrificing speech for another virtuoso’s skill, would you? 

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