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Struck by Lightning

Strange neurological consequences when lightning hits.

Lightning is an enormous discharge of electricity. It tends to happen during storms as a consequence of a collision of frozen water particles inside clouds. The collisions strip electrons from rising water vapor, causing a separation of electrical charges with positively charged ions rising to the top of the cloud and negatively charged electrons dropping to the bottom of the cloud.

The negative charge at the lower part of the cloud can be so great that it can repel electrons on the ground up to five miles away. When the electrons on the ground are repelled, the ground becomes positively charged, now attracting the negatively charges electrons at the bottom of the cloud.

At this point, the bottom of the cloud and the ground are like giant magnets being pulled toward one another. The negatively charged particles of the cloud storm toward the ground at a speed approximating 300,000 km/hour. When they hit the ground thereby neutralizing the difference in charge, we see a brilliant flash of light that delivers 300 kilovolts and causes the temperature of the surrounding air to rise by 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Naturally, we don't want to be struck by light that delivers 300 kilovolts and creates fire-like temperatures. It is significantly worse than dropping a hairdryer in the bathtub or opening an industrial capacitor. The electrical shocks that result from these types of accidents deliver a contact voltage of 20 to 60 kilovolts, significantly less than the 300 kilovolts of lightning.

When an electrical shock of 300 kilovolts is delivered to the body and brain, this can cause the heart to stop and can also cause significant brain damage, usually in the form of long-term memory loss. The hot air accompanying lightning causes third-degree burns, and the discharge and heat together can cause blood vessels to burst, leaving lightning bolt-shaped burn marks.

People don't always die from being struck by lightning, and when the enormous discharge does cause cardiac arrest, many people are resurrected but often with serious consequences to the brain.

In rare cases, being struck by lightning can lead to a positive change in how the brain functions. One famous case of this is that of Tony Cicoria, MD, who was struck by lightning at the age of 42 in Albany, New York's capital. It happened in 1994 when people still needed to use public telephones when away from home. Tony had just finished a phone call to his mom from a public phone booth when he was struck.

Public phone booths and the phones they contained were made of metal, and metal is more likely to become stripped of electrons in a storm, pulling the negatively charged lightning toward it with great force. This is why golfers are hit more frequently than others who are out in the open during a storm. The metal in their golfing equipment turns into a giant magnet in the storm. In one case, a diver in Florida was killed after being struck by lightning when the lightning hit his metal oxygen tank as he reached the surface of the ocean.

After being struck, Tony's heart stopped beating and he went unconscious. He also was seriously burned on his face and on his left foot, which was the exit point for the lightning shooting through his body. By sheer luck, a passerby who worked as a nurse in an intensive-care unit saw what happened and resurrected him.

Tony continued having memory problems after the incident, but they eventually went away. However, at that point, he suddenly found himself having an incredible urge to play the piano, something he had never had an interest in doing before.

The doctor bought a piano and taught himself how to play. He was hearing music in his head and was composing what he heard. His first composition was, unsurprisingly, called "The Lightning Sonata." After a few months, he largely dropped his career as an orthopedic surgeon and began a new career as a classical musician.

It is unclear what exactly happens in these cases. One of our case studies, Derek Amato, developed a similar urge to play the piano after suffering a mild traumatic brain injury from a swimming pool incident. He started seeing black-and-white musical nodes in his head and began to follow the inner images when playing the piano. Shortly after the pool accident, he was performing around the country and working on his first album.

One theory, that we are currently testing, is that cell death caused by head injuries or by being struck by lightning can cause one-time flooding of the brain with neurotransmitters that are released from the dying neurons. This flooding then causes a permanent change in the dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitter systems, thereby rewiring neurons and providing access to areas of the brain that were previously inaccessible.

More from Berit Brogaard D.M.Sci., Ph.D
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