In movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Jack, genetic aging disorders are treated with whimsy. They’re chances for us, as an audience, to reflect on what adult life looks like through the eyes of a child. But for Brooke Greenberg, being a teenager trapped in the body of an infant isn’t about life lessons or magic.
For the past sixteen years, Greenberg has maintained the appearance and development of an infant, baffling researchers who have been unable to identify her genetic disorder. Brooke’s condition is so unique, in fact, that scientists now believe her body may hold the key to eternal youth. Somebody tell Hugh Jackman, stat, because he thinks it’s in a space tree. (The Fountain, anyone?)
Unlike Benjamin Button, whose entire body ages backward at a constant pace, Brooke’s body parts are all different ages. “There’ve been very minimal changes in Brooke’s brain,” explains Dr. Richard Walker, of the University of South Florida College of Medicine. “Various parts of her body, rather than all being at the same stage, seem to be disconnected.”
Brooke still has all of her baby teeth, but her bone age is estimated to be about ten years. This has led to a number of deadly conditions for the child, including burst ulcers, strokes, and a brain tumor. But perhaps even more miraculously, every time Brooke seems on the verge of death, she heals.
So what’s going on here? It’s certainly not Robin Williams’s disease in Jack, which causes the man-boy to age from infant to full-grown adult in ten years, then to an old man by the time he’s graduated from high school. Neither is it Benjamin Button’s magical reverse aging.
Currently, doctors like Walker are trying to isolate the genetic anomaly or mutation (let Jackman’s Wolverine know about this one) that is responsible for Brooke’s ailment. “Without being sensational, I’d say this is an opportunity for us to answer the question, why we’re mortal, or at least to test it,” Walker says. “And if we’re wrong, we can discard it. But if we’re right, we’ve got the golden ring.”
The implications of such a breakthrough are both promising and terrifying — a fact that Walker concedes. “We can’t have continued reproduction and people who don’t age,” he explains, perhaps referring to a certain scifi flick where overpopulation incites Charlton Heston to utter the iconic phrase “Soylent Green is people!” Is Brooke a beacon of hope, the Typhoid Mary of overpopulation, or simply a genetic aberration like Benjamin or Jack, here to learn about the complexities of life through a slightly different aging process? Only time will tell — something that Brooke, at least, appears to have plenty of.Read More