Paralyzed hand temporarily works...huh?

About 30 years ago, I was living with Uncle Henry. He had a terrible stroke, that almost killed him. At any rate, the bottom line prognosis, when he got out, was about 30% speech, and 40% power on his right side to walk. His right arm seemed to be about 95% disabled, with no use of his hand. So…I was in my early teens, and an expert at medicine and psychiatry, as are all 13 year olds. I was convinced that the inability to use his right arm was all in his head. (No pun, etc…)
I got my aunt to go to his bedroom early one morning and wake him up and say, very urgently, “Henry! Quick! Grab hold of your nose!”
She did it, HE DID IT! Dr. hh was avenged!
Except, as he held it, you could see it all drain away. His arm slowly drew away from his face, and his fingers either recurled, or just went limp. He couldn’t be persuaded to do it again. Although, we tried it again about 3 days later, to the same result. He committed suicide shortly afterward.
Well, that’s the story. What happened? Is this a common occurrence? I know I didn’t hallucinate it. Was his impairment only psyhological?
Can anybody here give me info?
Thanks,
hh

I was watching a documentary–I think it was one of those Oliver Sacks films–and someone with a partially paralyzed arm or Parkinson’s had a mirror put in front of the bad arm so that the brain was fooled into thinking it was the good arm. The patient was temporarily able to get better use from the arm. Sorry, I wish I could tell you more about this.

I recall an example from one of Sack’s books, of someone whose paralysis would go in and out. He appeared to simply be paralyzed, until one day when very hot and thirsty he was suddenly able to reach out and grab a glass of water. Apparently with enough stimulus whatever was wrong with his brain/nerves could overcome the paralysis. After that initial recovery, every so often he’d “forget” how to move his paralyzed arm again, and they discovered they could “remind” it how to work with a strong enough stimulus, like thirst.

I have not heard of a case exactly like this, but I quite believe it. Localized brain damage (which is what a stroke causes) can have some very weird effects indeed. For instance, someone may be quite unable to speak normally, but they can still curse and/or sing.

Other examples include:
[ul]
[li]people who ignore almost everything to their left, to the extent of not eating the food on the left of their plate, even when the are still hungry, not shaving the left side of their face, and not responding to anything said by someone standing to their left. They can still see things to their left, however, if their attention is specifically drawn to something there. (This is quite a common neurological syndrome, known as left unilateral neglect. Right unilateral neglect, by contrast, is extremely rare.)[/li][li]people who are clearly blind, due to the destruction of their visual cortex (they walk into the furniture and such, and do not respond to a hand waved in front of their face), but insist that they can see perfectly well (Anton’s syndrome.)[/li][li]people who insist they cannot see at all, but clearly have at least partial vision. There is a relatively common version of this, known as blindsight, in which the blind subjects can “guess” where a visual target is quite reliably, even though they say they cannot see it at all. Some cases are even weirder, however. Apparently, one guy lived alone successfully, wrote and used shopping lists, and rode a bicycle around town, all the while insisting to his doctors that he could see nothing at all. (His vision was indeed quite impaired, but obviously not totally.)[/li][li]Sometimes, people will have a paralyzed limb due to brain damage, but, although they otherwise seem quite rational, they will totally deny that there is anything wrong with it. I once heard Ramachandran (a leading neurologist) give a talk in which he described a woman with a paralyzed left arm. If asked to raise her arm and point to something, she would seem to think she was complying, but of course her arm would not move (on the other hand, she was perfectly willing and able to do the task with her right arm). However, after Ramachandran squirted ice cold water in her left ear (surprisingly, this is a fairly standard test in neurology) she became aware of her paralysis and was quite distressed about it. The really amazing part, however, is that when he returned to examine her the next day, she was again insisting that her arm was fine, and although she remembered him, and remembered him squirting the water in her ear, she had completely forgotten that she had ever been aware of her paralysis.[/li][/ul]

Given the fact that brain damage can quite often lead to these sorts of weird disconnects (and many more examples could be given), your uncle’s case does not sound particularly unlikely, and I see no reason to think that it was “just” psychological.

Paralysis can arise from purely psychological causes - so called hysterical paralysis - and this was relatively common in the 19th century amongst neurotic wealthy European women, but it is now extremely rare. Neurosis seems to manifest itself in different ways these days. As your uncle had a serious stroke, that is almost certainly what caused his (real, but less than total) paralysis.

Possibly of relevance, and likely of interest, from this week’s New England Journal of Medicine: http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/362/13/e46

Make sure to watch the videos once you’ve clicked on the link.

Would a paralyzed person using these techniques on a regular basis be able to get some kind of higher performance on a regular basis? Maybe not to 100% function but something a little more useful?

Well, that’s about the only interpretation that I can make. Unfortunately, i didn’t have the chance back then, and now, who wants me to give them my special therapy?
Perhaps, tho, somebody will be able to do it.

Best wishes,
hh