Thursday, April 11, 2013

Phocomelia phantom

Perhaps the most famous example of a person born with phocomelia is Mignon the Penguin Girl, who toured in circus sideshows in the early 20th c. Phocomelia is a condition – caused by thalidomide (before it was taken off the market) or by genetic inheritance – characterized by malformation of the limbs. One result is oligodactyly, the opposite of polydactyly, in which digits of the hands or feet are missing. There is no "poster girl" for another condition: phantom limb phenomenon. This is the condition experienced by a majority of amputees, who feel sensations of movement and especially pain in their missing limb. For instance, someone who has lost an arm might feel as if his or her hand were balled up and the nails were digging into the palm. All of this leads up to a strange case from a couple of years ago brought to my attention on Reddit. A woman born with phocomelia had only three fingers on her hand. That hand later had to be amputated after she was in an accident. After the amputation of the hand, she sprouted a phantom hand complete with 5 fingers, including a phantom thumb and index finger that had been absent since her birth. Authors P.D. McGeoch and V.S. Ramachandran of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego, write, "This suggests that a hardwired representation of a complete hand had always been present in her brain....The case powerfully demonstrates the interaction of nature and nurture in creating and sustaining body image."

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