When people die after suffering from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, opioid abuse or some other mental disorder, Lipska’s team works with local medical examiners to collect their brains. There is a sense of reverence when one comes in. Each brain is a clue in an effort to understand mental illness, which is the subject Lipska has spent her life studying — including, in a roundabout and unexpected way, when her own mind went dramatically wrong three years ago.
It was January 2015 when Lipska reached out to turn on her work computer and something peculiar happened: Her right hand disappeared into a kind of black hole. When she moved her hand to the left, it reappeared within her field of vision. She immediately feared something might be awry in her brain.
She drove to her primary doctor — even with the loss of vision, it would not have occurred to her to ask her husband to come fetch her — but it was only after an MRI exam the next morning that she knew the situation was dire. She had three melanoma tumors in her brain, one bleeding and quite dangerous, necessitating emergency surgery. Doctors went into her skull to remove the bleeding tumor from where it sat in her primary visual cortex. Metastatic melanoma is an aggressive and fast-moving disease; Lipska was expected to live less than a year.
Shortly after the second infusion of drugs, a profound change overtook her brain, affecting her behavior. It would last about two months; even after the period was over, she didn’t know the full extent of what she had done until her family began to reveal it to her in bits and pieces, leaving her horrified.
Did she really accuse the exterminator of trying to poison her? Did she get lost while out walking a mile from her home in Annandale, Va., and decide she didn’t care if neighbors saw her pee herself as she tried to find her way home? Did she walk past a car that had been hit by a tree, and then circle back and point out the felled car again, because she’d forgotten seeing it half an hour before? Moments from that period emerged as if from a mist, leaving Lipska to conclude that for two months in the summer of 2015, she was in some sense not Barbara Lipska at all, but somebody else.
It was then that Lipska set about studying her own brain with scholarly zeal, mapping her mental deficits up to the parts of her brain affected by the cancer. She saw parallels with bipolar disorder, dementia and the disease she’d studied much of her life, schizophrenia.