Monday, November 22, 2010


What do Young Frankenstein and The Ape have in common? Cerebrospinal fluid, that's what! In both films CSF is the golden(1) elixir that, once introduced into a patient's body, will raise low IQ scores, calm behavioral disorders, or cure paralysis. So much for one little fluid to do!


CSF is the liquid circulating around your brain and spinal cord. It essentially acts like liquid packing material. You brain floats in, and is cushioned by it. CSF protects the tender brain from sloshing and getting injured(2). The fluid also helps the body maintain constant intracranial pressure, and transports metabolic wastes and pathogenic agents away from the brain and into the bloodstream.

Can it help a person with flaccid paralysis walk again? Not really. Can it increase intelligence? No. If it could, we'd have heard about kids "juicing" their brains before taking SAT exams.

A lumbar puncture can be used to diagnose many illnesses.

How does one retrieve CSF? Typically with a procedure called a lumbar puncture, aka spinal tap. A needle is inserted into the lower back between two lumbar vertebrae. The person receiving the puncture has to flex the trunk to maximize space between vertebrae.

Although a spinal tap can be performed at the neck, they are usually done between lumbar vertebrae 4 and 5. This is a safer place to perform the procedure because the spinal cord ends around L1/L2. Nerves branch off the cord and continue down through the tube formed by your vertebral column. The sprouty structure formed by these nerves is called the cauda equina (horse's tail).

When you stick a needle into the vertebral canal, the nerves forming the "tail" can get pushed out of the way, minimizing damage by the needle. During a spinal tap in the neck, a danger is that the operator may nick the cord, which isn't so good.


In The Ape, Boris Karloff has a controversial experimental treatment for polio. He injects CSF from a donor into the vertebral canal of a paralyzed, teenage girl, who's in love. It is not clear exactly what type of procedure Boris Karloff uses to retrieve the CSF. He only collects the stuff from men who have been murdered by a "giant ape"(3), and he seems to need a lot of it. His heart is in the right place, and of course the girl starts to walk again, but it goes badly for Boris.

Paralysis from polio....

can be cured with CSF! Thanks to - The Ape!

In Young Frankenstein, Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) performs a transfusion of sorts where he and The Monster (Peter Boyle) mix and swap their CSF. The fluid is supposed to invest The Monster with some of Frankenstein's intelligence, which it does (in the movie, but not really.)

This transfusion had to be performed for 15 minutes exactly! No more, no less!

In the transfusion scene we see the scientist and monster sporting shiny helmets with tubes of liquid bubbling between their heads. Instead of doing a spinal tap procedure, we must assume his assistant, Inga (Teri Garr), drilled holes in Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster's skulls for this fluid exchange. Inga probably tells Frankenstein to "hold onto his hat" on their honeymoon evening so that she doesn't have to look at the bald patches on Frankenstein's head(4).

1. It's not really golden. Cerebrospinal fluid is clear and watery with a lot of glucose (sugar) in it. If it was golden, it would probably be full of bacteria, or maybe have blood in it.
2. For more about brain injury due to "sloshing" you can click on the contrecoup injury labels for other posts.
3. The quotes are for those of you who have seen the movie, wink, wink! (Sure, I could have used an emoticon, but I don't believe in them.)
4. She'd have to shave the area before the operation, for hygenic purposes.