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Roger Sperry and The Nobel Prize

Roger Sperry was a neuropsychologist and neurobiologist who, together with Torsten Wiesel and David Hubel won the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine for his groundbreaking work in split-brain research. The prize was divided into two halves; one-half was awarded to Sperry. A scientific journal published in 2002 ranked Sperry as the 44th most psychologist of the 20th century.

Split-Brain Patients

The reason for Sperry’s award was ‘’for his discoveries concerning the functional specialization of the cerebral hemispheres’’. Sperry worked with ‘’split-brain’’ patients. The brain is divided into two: a right hemisphere and a left hemisphere, the two are connected by something called the corpus callosum and in split-brain patients the corpus callosum is damaged. The damage usually occurs due to a mental condition called epilepsy, the symptoms of which produce constant seizures that damages the corpus callosum. Seizures start from one hemisphere moving to the other.

Sperry was more interested in showing that an individual can have two different functioning brains, which led him to the study of split-brain patients, as he thought that severing the corpus callosum would prove this. Before Sperry’s research, it was generally believed that it was not possible for a person to have two functioning brains. Along with disproving this widely held belief Sperry also uncovered the function of the right hemisphere of the brain, which was previously thought to be unconscious and not have any functions.

Experiment on Cats

Sperry first started his research into this topic by experimenting with cats. He cut the corpus callosum of cats and experimented with them through a series of tests. His results from this experiment led him to believe that the right and left hemisphere of the brain function independently when the corpus callosum is severed.

After the result of his experiments on cats, it was discovered that severing the corpus callosum is a good treatment for epilepsy patients. As epilepsy sufferers who underwent the procedure to remove the corpus callosum became available to Sperry, he started running tests on his subjects. With these patients, he was able to show that a conscious mind exists in each hemisphere thus proving what he set out to do.

Sperry’s research was groundbreaking for the time and opened up many new fields of psychology and brain research, which led him to receive a Nobel Prize in 1981. Sperry’s discovery that cutting the corpus callosum as a treatment for epilepsy is still used today as a last resort in many cases as treatment for it, such has been the long lasting impact of his research.

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