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New research from UCLA could explain the massive personality change of Phineas Gage

The first known photograph of Phineas Gage (identified in 2009).
The first known photograph of Phineas Gage (identified in 2009).
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Phineas Gage is a staple of most Psychology 101 textbooks. He's the man who in 1848 survived a freak accident that drove a four-foot long iron rod up into his cheek and out through his head.

At the time, Gage was a 25-year-old railroad worker. He survived, but his personality was completely altered: he went from being a mild-mannered, affable man to someone with violent mood swings who swore a blue streak.

To this day, scientists remain puzzled as to how the accident changed his personality so drastically. Phineas Gage's skull is too fragile to study but UCLA researchers have found a way to work around that. Jack Van Horn is a member of the team that recently published new data in the science journal PLoS ONE.

Gage's skull, which now sits on display at Harvard's Medical School, is too old to be handled by researchers. To create an estimate of Gage's brain matter, researchers took brain images of 110 modern-day men who were right-handed, the same age and height as Gage, and merged the images together.

The rod damaged just 4 percent of Gage's cerebral cortex, but it destroyed more than 10 percent of the brain's white matter, and that's believed to have contributed to Gage's personality change.

After Gage's brain injury, he couldn't continue his railroad job and became a stagecoach driver in Chile. He later moved to be with family in San Francisco, and died there of an epileptic seizure in 1860 — 12 years after the accident. Researchers believe there is a strong correlation between traumatic brain injury and epilepsy.


Jack Van Horn is an assistant professor of neurology at UCLA.