This Doctor Figured Out Why People Smell Burned Toast Before Seizures
Happy birthday, Wilder Penfield!
Today’s Google doodle shows a man, a brain, a face in profile, and a slice of burnt toast. The man is neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield, who was born 127 years ago today. The brain belongs to one of Penfield’s patients, a Canadian woman with epilepsy who said she smelled burnt toast before having seizures. Penfield worked with this woman to develop a groundbreaking epilepsy treatment known as the Montreal procedure.
Epileptic seizures occur when there is abnormal nerve cell activity in a person’s brain. Through testing that eventually became known as the Montreal procedure, Penfield was able to pinpoint that exact location of the overactive nerve cells in the brain. Penfield put this patient under a local anesthetic—so she was still wide awake during surgery—and removed a part of her skull to expose the brain. Penfield then probed areas of the woman’s brain and asked her to describe what she felt. When the woman again described the smell of burnt toast, Penfield determined the area he was probing to be the part of her brain that caused the epilepsy, and he removed that small piece of brain tissue. Following the procedure, the patient’s seizures completely stopped.
This very dramatic video recreates Penfield’s experiment: