Balloon Brain

I started blogging in order to share some of my experiences as the brother of a severely autistic, low functioning and nonverbal person. I grew up in a time where little was known about autism and there was very little support available in the community for autistic individuals, their siblings or their parents.  I was lucky enough to be brought up in an atmosphere where questions were encouraged.

Having a brother who was so totally unable to communicate got me thinking about the nature of all kinds of things: what is a human being?; why is my brother the way he is?


The latter question sparked my interest in the workings of the brain. During my years working in a hospital setting, I was fortunate to meet and work with Dr. Andrew Lautin, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, who had just completed a volume about the limbic system (The Limbic System,  New York: Kluwer Academic Publishers 2001). We are currently working on an introductory neuroanatomy text, using simple concepts to explain the development and organization of the human brain.

Wilhelm His

Today, I would like to mention the work of Wilhelm His. His work is key to the central concept of our book: modeling the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) as a flexible rubber tube. From Stephen Jay Gould:

“In his greatest work of 1874, Unsere Koperform und das physiologische Problem ihrer Entstehung, His noted the extraordinary resemblance between embryonic organs and simple manipulation upon rubber tubes. We must start from the fact that the brain at its beginning stages, is a [hollow] tube with moderately elastic walls.”  Stephen J. Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Belknap/Harvard, 1977 (pg. 189)

His displayed several figures of early stages of the neural tube of a chick embryo side-by-side with a rubber tube model. He attached strings to places on the rubber tube, which, when pulled upon, deformed the rubber tube to approximate the shape of the embryo. He went on to say:

“These examples,  may be sufficient to prove the general importance of elementary mechanical considerations in treating morphological questions. They show at the same time how the means that nature uses in forming her organisms may be very simple. The segmented germ [embryo] divides itself into primitive embryonic organs by a few systems of folding . . . Even the most complicated of our organic systems, the nervous system, follows a course of the most astonishing simplicity”  (Wilhelm His, 1888 from Stephen J. Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Belknap/Harvard, 1977 pg. 190)

The fact that mere physical forces could deform an embryo into familiar embryonic forms flew in the face of the Ernst Haeckel‘s biogenetic law: Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. This theory stated that in the development of the human embryo, all previous evolutionary stages must be repeated. This is an interesting controversy, but not central to our goal. The fact that we are interested in is that a mechanical can accurately represent the morphology of different stages of the development of the neural tube (that structure that underlies the central nervous system from spinal cord to cerebral cortex).

Once we establish that the inner core of the central nervous system can be modeled after a flexible rubber tube balloon, it is a short step to demonstrating that a party entertainer, skilled in making animal forms out of a balloon, can squeeze and twist one into a human brain.

6 thoughts on “Balloon Brain

  1. This is fascinating Jack. I came across you on Linked-In the other day and saw that you were co-authoring a book on neuroanatomy. It’s a subject that has come to be of great interest to me because of the connective tissue disorder that I have, and that essentially my own neuroanatomy has developed slightly different to that of others due to an alteration of the collagen in my body. This means of course that the termination of my bones is different, I’m a little stretchier than most people. There is even now suggestion from medical investigations that brain development and subsequent learning disorders may well be a contingent of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome/Hypermobility, which is the condition that I have. So it’s interesting to learn that the human organism begins life as being very pliable and elastic anyway. It makes me wonder what the implications may be in terms of understanding the functioning of the brain and the nervous system, and how that then affects behaviour and motor control.
    You always give me something to think about Jack.



    • Hi M.
      You mentioned that you had some medical issues in previous posts. I looked up Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and it sounds really bad. I hope you don’t have the vascular kind – the worst kind, but from what you said about your heart, it sounds like that’s what you have. You must have to be so careful. I didn’t notice what the treatment was in my internet search. Do you have to take medication? Sounds like a dreadful thing.

      Yes, the neuro book has been in the works for a while now. I really enjoyed learning about neuroembryogenesis as well as the structures in the adult brain, especially the limbic system – the emotional circuit.

      Will try to post more about nervous system development, but I don’t want to upstage the book which should be out in six months or so.
      All the best, M. Take care of yourself.


      • Hi Jack,

        Fortunately I don’t have the vascular type. I doubt I would have made it this far if that were the case. I have the Classical/Hypermobility variety, however there are a lot of related conditions that I have in conjunction to Classical EDS. One of which is dysautonomia, so my BP and heart-rate, body temperature act aren’t regulated properly, being quite erratic most of the time, and worsening with age. My biggest risk is suffering a stroke due to the severe bouts of arrhythmia that I am having with more frequency these days. I’m currently on Beta-blockers, however medication is known not to work very well due to the way that someone with EDS absorbs substances and nutrients through the body. A little hit and miss. As you can imagine anaesthetics can be a bit tricky, as they have a tendency not to be very effective due to lack of absorption. I keep physically fit and strong and that seems to alleviate a lot of the physical pain that I feel on a day to day basis. It is what it is I suppose, and I have lived with it my entire life, so I have no idea what it would be like not to have my long list of symptoms.

        Thank you for expressing your interest though. The book sounds fascinating and I will most certainly keep my eyes open for further posts Jack. Hope all is well with you and that you are still enjoying the painting.
        You take care too.


        • Yikes, M.
          I assume you’re talking about A-fib. That sounds awful. Is it possible for a pacemaker to alleviate that problem? Is it possible to chart the meds that don’t absorb well and dose accordingly? They do that with bariatric cases where, say vitamin D doesn’t get absorbed and can only be gotten into the body by megadoses. You need your own special dosing table.
          Stay strong. Sei gesund.


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