Nine years ago, Graham woke up and discovered he was dead. He was in the grip of Cotard’s syndrome. People with this rare condition believe that they, or parts of their body, no longer exist.
For Graham, it was his brain that was dead, and he believed that he had killed it. Suffering from severe depression, he had tried to commit suicide by taking an electrical appliance with him into the bath.
“When I was in hospital I kept on telling them that the tablets weren’t going to do me any good ’cause my brain was dead. I lost my sense of smell and taste. I didn’t need to eat, or speak, or do anything…everything was meaningless.”
Neurologist Adam Zeman said, “He felt he was in a limbo state caught between life and death.”
Some people with Cotard’s have reportedly died of starvation, believing they no longer needed to eat. Others have attempted to get rid of their body using acid, which they saw as the only way they could free themselves of being the “walking dead.”
What a brain scan found was shocking: metabolic activity across large areas of Graham’s frontal and parietal brain regions was so low that it resembled that of someone in a vegetative state.
Some of these areas form part of what is known as the “default mode network” – a complex system of activity thought to be vital to core consciousness, and our theory of mind. This network is responsible for our ability to recollect the past, to think about ourselves, to create a sense of self and it allows us to realise that we are the agent responsible for an action.
“Graham’s brain function resembles that of someone during anaesthesia or sleep. Seeing this pattern in someone who is awake is quite unique to my knowledge,” said neurologist Steven Laureys.
Graham’s scans could have been affected by the antidepressants he was taking and, as Zeman points out, it is unwise to draw too many conclusions from scans from a single person. But, Zeman says, “It seems plausible that the reduced metabolism was giving him this altered experience of the world, and affecting his ability to reason about it.”
This feeling prompted him on occasion to visit the local graveyard: “I just felt I might as well stay there. It was the closest I could get to death. The police would come and get me, though, and take me back home.”
Over time, and with a lot of psychotherapy and drug treatment, Graham has gradually improved and is no longer in the grip of the disorder.
[via New Scientist]