A Brain Surgeon with Heart
After growing up in inner-city Detroit, Ben Carson, M.D., became one of the nation's top pediatric neurosurgeons.
Dr. Carson gained fame in 1987 as the main surgeon in a 22-hour operation to separate Germany's Binder Siamese twins. Joined at the skull, the twins were the first to survive such surgery.
An award-winning researcher who devised procedures to fight seizures and brain tumors, Dr. Carson chairs the Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions in Baltimore. A widely sought speaker, he has written three books about his odyssey from the ghetto -- "Gifted Hands," "The Big Picture" and "Think Big." Dr. Carson tells student audiences they can achieve their dreams through hard work and education.
With his wife, Candy, and three sons, Dr. Carson enjoys traveling and classical music. The family has its own string quartet, the "Carson Four."
Q. You've spent many years studying the human brain. What impresses you most?
Dr. Carson: Over the years, I've gained an enormous respect for the human brain. Did you know that our brains can process over 2 million bits of information per second? The brain performs an incredible array of physiological and mental functions, and it remembers everything we've ever seen or heard in our lives. Astonishing! Really, I think the most advanced computers in the world are rather primitive, when compared to the complexity and sophistication of the human brain.
Q. You rose from grinding poverty in the Detroit ghetto to become one of the world's top brain surgeons. How did you overcome the obstacles you faced?
Dr. Carson: Well, I think we all need to remember that everyone faces obstacles in life. But the real key to success is the attitude you take toward them. If you see obstacles as walls, then you're in danger of using them as excuses for failure. But if you treat them as hurdles, as opportunities, then they can motivate you to develop your talents and meet the challenges in your life.
Q. You've performed dozens of hemispherectomies, in which you remove half the brain to end intractable seizures. How does this procedure work and how difficult is it?
Dr. Carson: As you can imagine, this is an extremely complex operation and it can last up to 20 hours on occasion. The brain consists of two halves -- hemispheres -- that mirror each other in many ways. And many people are surprised to learn that human beings can function with only one hemisphere, if the surgery is correctly performed. We conduct one or two of these operations per month at Johns Hopkins, and in most cases the procedure puts an end to the patient's disabling seizures. It sounds hard to believe, I'm sure, but most of the patients who undergo this operation end up with a higher IQ than before -- and also without having to take seizure medications anymore.
Q. What's next in brain surgery?
Dr. Carson: I'm convinced that we will soon have the ability to integrate very sophisticated microchips into the human brain to replicate -- and maybe even improve upon -- some of its functions. This step could have a profound effect on repairing brain disorders, while also opening up many new areas of neurological research.
Q. You're an internationally renowned brain surgeon, the author of three books, and a motivational leader for millions of American youth. Where do you go from here?
Dr. Carson: Well, I want to continue to work at being the best surgeon I can be. I'm also interested in carrying my message about the value of education to people everywhere. I think it would be wonderful, for example, if we could make academic achievement as important -- as admirable -- as athletic achievement in our nation today....I believe we can solve many of the problems that trouble our society today -- provided that we get to work thinking about them and using the brains that God gave us more effectively.
Benjamin Solomon Carson, M.D.
Field: Pediatric neurosurgery
Contribution: Dr. Carson perfected a technique to end children's life-threatening brain seizures by removing the damaged half of the brain. As head of the Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins for 17 years, he has refined surgical methods for separating twins connected at the head. As a researcher, he devised a laser procedure to treat blocked shunts (the tubes that drain fluid from the brain). He's also working on ways to treat children's brainstem tumors.