The Brain That Remade Itself

Doctors removed one-sixth of this child’s brain — and what was left did something incredible

Andrew Zaleski
Published in
13 min readFeb 27, 2019


Credit: iLexx/Getty Images

II put my hand on a bishop and slide it several squares before moving it back. “Should I move a different piece instead?” I wonder to myself.

“You have to move that piece if you’ve touched it,” my opponent says, flashing a wry grin.

Fine. I move the bishop. It’s becoming increasingly obvious to me now — I’m going to lose a game of chess to a 12-year-old.

My opponent is Tanner Collins, a seventh-grade student growing up in a Pittsburgh suburb. Besides playing chess, Collins likes building with Legos. One such set, a replica of Hogwarts Castle from the Harry Potter books, is displayed on a hutch in the dining room of his parents’ house. He points out to me a critical flaw in the design: The back of the castle isn’t closed off. “If you turn it around,” he says, “the whole side is open. That’s dumb.”

Tanner Collins, Credit: Courtesy of Nicole Collins

Though Collins is not dissimilar from many kids his age, there is something that makes him unlike most 12-year-olds in the United States, if not the world: He’s missing one-sixth of his brain.

Collins was three months shy of seven years old when surgeons sliced open his skull and removed a third of his brain’s right hemisphere. For two years prior, a benign tumor had been growing in the back of his brain, eventually reaching the size of a golf ball. The tumor caused a series of disruptive seizures that gave him migraines and kept him from school. Medications did little to treat the problem and made Collins drowsy. By the day of his surgery, Collins was experiencing daily seizures that were growing in severity. He would collapse and be incontinent and sometimes vomit, he says.

When neurologists told Collins’ parents, Nicole and Carl, that they could excise the seizure-inducing areas of their son’s brain, the couple agreed. “His neurologist wasn’t able to control his seizures no matter what medication she put him on,” Nicole says. “At that point, we were desperate… His quality of life was such that the benefits…