Black Holes

It looked like a glow-in-the-dark doughnut.
When the first image of a black hole 55 light-years away from Earth was made public by astronomers this spring, it was heralded across the globe. Astronomers, the New York Times reported, had “captured an image of the unobservable: a black hole, a cosmic abyss so deep and dense that not even light can escape it.” The writer described the image as “a smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.”

The very idea of “a one-way portal to eternity” is terrifying in an end-of-the-world, Game of Thrones kind of way.
The very idea of a black hole becomes intimately and individually terrifying when you learn that you are carrying one around inside your brain. This is a real possibility for those with MS. The Journal of the American Medical Association describes MS-induced black (or dark) holes in the brain, detected by MRIs, as “irreversible brain tissue damage.” In a YouTube video, an Ohio MS neurologist calls it “an area where the [MS] inflammation was so intense that it ate away at the brain tissue, and you’re left with a small amount of brain damage”
I discovered that I have my own, personal cosmic abyss when I read an MRI report a couple years ago. As I scanned the document, I was stunned to find the phrase “dark hole” used in reference to a section of my midbrain. A lesion, located in what is called the “splenium of the corpus callosum,” the radiologist’s report said, “is associated with a T1 dark hole.” Research led me to discover that “dark hole” is often used interchangeably with the phrase “black hole.”
When I asked my neurologist about it, he apologized, saying these are “unfortunate” terms. He doesn’t typically use these phrases with patients, he said, instead favoring the term “T1 hypointensity” to describe these damaged areas because, “Patients come away less scared than with that ‘black hole’ word.”
I started thinking about my dark hole after the historic photo of that intergalactic black hole was published. While reading news stories about black holes written in the wake of the photo, I found myself scrutinizing a grainy image in The New York Times taken by NASA’s Hubble telescope where the editors placed an arrow pointing to a bright spot which they said was a black hole. Trying to distinguish the difference between one bright dot and another on that image reminded me of my attempts to decipher MRI images of my brain that my physician quickly displays on his desktop computer during visits. He quickly gestures to a lesion but Ia layperson who doesn’t see those clear distinctions on the MRIpretend like I see it too.
I can’t fully comprehend the existence of black holes in space. If they exist, how is it that everything hasn’t been gobbled up already? And, is there any way to fight them, or are we helpless sitting ducks?
Similar questions apply to the dark hole that the MRI report says is in my brain. If it exists, I can only hope the medicine I take daily prevents it from gobbling up the organ which contains the essence of who and what I am. I rely on that disease-modifying medicine to create a firm event horizon beyond which no more damage can be done.
At least when it comes to MS, we are fortunate enough now to have tools to fight the darkness. As for that glow-in-the-dark doughnut of a black hole in the photo, it doesn’t appear as though anyone has answers.
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Meredith O’Brien

Meredith O’Brien is a Boston area writer and journalism lecturer. She is a die-hard Red Sox fan who has three college-aged kids and two noisy dogs. Her fourth book is “Uncomfortably Numb: A Memoir,” about her MS experience. Follow her on Twitter or visit her website.