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Thursday, February 12, 1998 Published at 09:15 GMT


Scientists find sense of humour
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The "laughter centre" is situated near the part of the brain controlling language

It's a funny old world. There you are carrying out vital work into chronic epilepsy. You stumble on a scientific breakthrough. And, suddenly, it's a huge joke.

That is at least part of the story of a group of scientists at the University of California medical school who say they have found the part of the brain that controls laughter.

Whilst using electric currents to explore a 16-year-old girl's severe epilepsy, the team hit upon the so-called "laughter centre".

Laughter buzz

By passing the current through this region, located on the left-hand side of the brain, the girl could be made to laugh uncontrollably - even when there was nothing funnier going on than a group of men standing around in white coats.

Low voltages made her smile. As the current increased, so did her mirth. Finally, "a robust and contagious laughter was induced," the science journal Nature reported.

The girl told the team: "You guys are just so funny standing around."

Stimulating other areas of the girl's brain did not produce similar results.

Surgeon Dr Itzhak Fried, who led the team that made the discovery, told the BBC: "We have not seen this before in our studies."

He said the girl would always link her good humour with the external stimulus present at the time.

Hilarious horse

"Whatever she was doing at the time she would attribute the laughter to that activity. If she was looking at a picture of a horse, she would say the horse was so funny.

"We got the impression that she was enjoying it. It was a pleasant experience for her."

But Dr Fried was uncertain if the results of his work could be repeated. "I think obviously this is a very particular clinical situation," he said.

"We just tapped into perhaps one area in a very complex network. It was very close to areas that carry some speech function, so speech and laughter are very close together."

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