Just Plain Interesting

By Dan Peterson

The feature story in this week’s New York Times Magazine is about Tatiana and Krista McKay, a pair of twins who are conjoined at the head and share a connection through the brain.  The implications are mind-blowing:

Suddenly the girls sat up again, with renewed energy, and Krista reached for a cup with a straw in the corner of the crib. “I am drinking really, really, really, really fast,” she announced and started to power-slurp her juice, her face screwed up with the effort. Tatiana was, as always, sitting beside her but not looking at her, and suddenly her eyes went wide. She put her hand right below her sternum, and then she uttered one small word that suggested a world of possibility: “Whoa!”

In any other set of twins, the natural conclusion about the two events — Krista’s drinking, Tatiana’s reaction — would be that they were coincidental: a gulp, a twinge, random simultaneous happenstance. But Krista and Tatiana are not like most other sets of twins. They are connected at their heads, where their skulls merge under a mass of shaggy brown bangs. The girls run and play and go down their backyard slide, but whatever they do, they do together, their heads forever inclined toward each other’s, their neck muscles strong and sinuous from a never-ending workout.

Twins joined at the head — the medical term is craniopagus — are one in 2.5 million, of which only a fraction survive. The way the girls’ brains formed beneath the surface of their fused skulls, however, makes them beyond rare: their neural anatomy is unique, at least in the annals of recorded scientific literature. Their brain images reveal what looks like an attenuated line stretching between the two organs, a piece of anatomy their neurosurgeon, Douglas Cochrane of British Columbia Children’s Hospital, has called a thalamic bridge, because he believes it links the thalamus of one girl to the thalamus of her sister. The thalamus is a kind of switchboard, a two-lobed organ that filters most sensory input and has long been thought to be essential in the neural loops that create consciousness. Because the thalamus functions as a relay station, the girls’ doctors believe it is entirely possible that the sensory input that one girl receives could somehow cross that bridge into the brain of the other. One girl drinks, another girl feels it.

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