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Doc Dave and Oliver Sacks

Top Birmingham neurologist Dr David Nicholl recalls a meeting with one of his heroes - the top US neurologist (and author) Oliver Sacks.

Some days change your life more than others, and listening to Radio 4's "Start the Week" brought some very fond memories back to me when Andrew Marr interviewed the neurologist and author Dr Oliver Sacks.

Sacks is famous for many books, especially "The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" and "Awakenings". The latter was made into the Oscar-nominated film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams in 1991.

"Awakenings" is based on the experiences of the young Oliver Sacks in the 1960s dealing with patients with Post-encephalitic Parkinsonism who had been left largely immobile for decades after they had developed encephalitis lethargica which had killed millions of people worldwide in the 1920s.

For a brief period, these patients 'awakened' when treated with the Parkinson's drug L-dopa and the film describes the effects this had on patients and staff. Robert De Niro's performance of a patient with the violent on-off motor fluctuations from their Parkinsonism was staggeringly realistic.

Anyhow, 10 years ago I was involved in a much more minor multimedia contribution, I was developing a teaching CD-ROM on Parkinson's disease. I very much wanted to get some video material of the original patients who Dr Sacks had written about in "Awakenings".

Encephalitis lethargica is an illness that has always fascinated neurologists, even though it is exceedingly rare now, in the early part of the 20th century it killed more people than the First World War. Who better to help my CD-ROM project than the man who had written the book that was made into THE movie?

I approached his agent as I was going to be in New York for a neurology meeting. Next thing I know, Oliver Sacks asks me round for tea. I can't really put into words the experience. I guess if Oliver Sacks is an author, I would be a neuro-groupie. After all this was the man who had written the books which I'd read as a teenager and medical student and inspired me to do neurology!

Anyhow after chatting for a couple of hours over the cases, he sent me hours of tapes which I subsequently included in the CD-ROM.

That night I celebrated my good fortune with friends on the "Windows on the World" restaurant in the World Trade Centre. Three years later, the September 11th attacks happened and the restaurant, along with the rest of the Twin Towers collapsed, but memories of that day never faded in the rubble.

Indeed, when I was approaching co-authors for my Lancet article on human rights abuses in Guantanamo, it only seemed logical to approach the inspirational Dr Sacks who had touched me as a doctor and who thought deeply on many very different levels.

Anyhow, the reason Oliver Sacks is in the UK this week is to promote his new book "Musicophilia - tales of music and the brain" which explores the neurology of music through a series of case studies similar to his previous books. For example, there is the musicologist who although left profoundly amnesic after encephalitis, yet is still able to play music flawlessly.

Another man who having not shown any particular interest in music, after being struck by lightning, started to compose piano music.

As the Sunday Times put it "He writes, basically, adventure stories, accounts of voyages into the unexplored territory of the brain. In doing so, he reveals a landscape far more complex and strange than anything we could infer from our daily interactions. After finishing a Sacks book, every face in the street inspires agonies of wild surmise."

Sounds like a good book for the Christmas stocking, whether a neurologist, a musician, or just questioning why you are humming a particular tune in your head.

Interview with Dr Sacks about his latest book here-

Ever met one of your heroes?

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