The mind is a precious thing to lose. Dr. Barbara K. Lipska, the director of the Human Brain Collection Core at the National Institute of Mental Health, learned this terrifying truth firsthand. In January of 2015, a melanoma diagnosis turned her once nimble mind into a war zone. With alarming quickness, the metastatic melanoma in Lipska’s brain attacked her frontal lobe, the area of the brain responsible for behavior, personality, learning and voluntary movement. She began to transform into a distant stranger, experiencing symptoms that mimicked dementia and schizophrenia. Friends and family members wondered if this new version of their beloved mother, wife, friend and colleague would permanently replace the woman they once knew. Lipska waged a tough battle against her faulty brain, and remarkably, through radiation and immunotherapy, she recovered.
As a medical professional whose career revolves around analyzing the molecular and genetic structure of the brain, it seems a cruel trick of fate that Lipska was struck by a disease that affected her own brain function. In The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind, Lipska recounts her ordeal with equal parts raw honesty and clear-eyed conviction. Her brush with death changed her physically, mentally and emotionally, and lead to a realization that the tragedy of an unlived life should be feared more than death itself. Lipska writes, “I’ve become more aware of living. I try harder than ever to find meaning in ordinary things every day.” While this sentiment could seem trite in other memoirs, Lipska avoids sentimentality and doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that her descent into “madness” resulted in collateral damage among her loved ones; she was somewhat safe in the eye of the storm.
Lipska’s memoir makes clear that, in many ways, our brains are still a mystery.