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Phineas Gage: How did he survive a steel rod that pierced and destroyed his frontal lobe?

Phineas Gage: How did he survive a steel rod that pierced and destroyed his frontal lobe?

If someone manages to survive a more than one-meter-long metal rod passing through their skull, it’s no wonder they are still being talked about 150 years later. That was the case with Phineas Gage.

In 1848, 25-year-old Gage suffered an accident where an explosion embedded a rod into his head. Astonishingly, his vital functions remained almost intact, making him one of the most famous cases in neuroscience.

Phineas Gage’s Accident


Gage was preparing a hole to place explosives. Unfortunately, he accidentally struck a rock, causing a spark that ignited the dynamite.

As a result, an iron rod of 1.25 meters shot through his head, penetrating his skull and causing serious brain damage. The rod entered through his left cheek and exited through the top of his forehead, remaining embedded.

It’s worth noting that before the accident, Phineas Gage was a responsible and hardworking person. But after the unfortunate event, he became impulsive and reckless. Why?

Because the rod destroyed his frontal lobe, which is associated with characteristics that distinguish us from other animals, such as directing behaviors towards a goal, planning, motivation, and attention. It also significantly interferes with other brain functions; thus, damage to that area entirely alters the affected person’s personality.

After the accident, Phineas Gage was never the same. His doctor stated:

“The equilibrium between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities had been destroyed.”

Gage experienced notable changes in his personality, becoming capricious, brusque, and childlike. He also lost emotional stability, acting on immediate emotions, neglecting future consequences. Another significant change was his instability; he could have sudden fits of anger and lost all traces of empathy.

His life after the accident was a rollercoaster. He reportedly held jobs for short periods, lived in Chile, and worked as a horse-drawn carriage driver there. In 1861, 12 years after the accident, he began experiencing seizures, which eventually led to his death.

A Striking Case for Science


For decades, scientists have studied and debated Phineas Gage’s case due to the location of the brain damage and its effects. However, in 2012, a study from the University of California gained access to decade-old supposedly lost brain images via tomography.

These images allowed for a 3D reconstruction of the damages caused by the accident. According to their explanation to the PLoS One magazine, they found that 4% of the cerebral cortex was severed, and more than 10% of the brain’s white matter was damaged.

White matter consists of fibers connecting different brain regions, responsible for reasoning and memory. The loss of a significant part of this “neuronal wiring” could explain the drastic change in Phineas Gage’s behavior.

In Gage’s case, the lost white matter connected his left frontal cortex with the rest of the brain. Yet, experts continue studying it; in fact, his skull is preserved at Harvard Medical School.

Such occurrences help researchers map the brain and understand how the “neuronal map” is linked to the various functions performed by our most significant organ. Undoubtedly, a case that will remain in history.

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