'Cyclops' by allison.hare on Flickr

Because he only had one pupil…

It’s amazing when you randomly flick through some article titles and amongst gloomy news concerning Dame Elizabeth Taylor’s passing and the earthquake in Japan, you come across something like ‘Cyclops Baby Born in India’. Whoa…Rewind. This affects your conception about the world, to some extent, because many of us perceive cyclopes as being mythical creatures i.e. not real, not in this universe. Maybe in Disney’s ‘Hercules’, but that was hardly extremely veridical. Well, Mother Nature seldom ceases to surprise us and, as implausible as some scenarios may initially sound, they’re 100% real.

According to medicinenet.com, cyclopia (also known as cyclocephaly or synophthalmia) is a congenital abnormality characterised by the failure of the embryonic prosencephalon to properly divide the orbits of the eye into two distinct cavities. Ok, so that is a bit of a mouthful. If we were to break it down, we’d discover that: a) it’s a birth defect and b) the forebrain (prosencephalon) is where the problem stems from. Normally, the developing eyes appear in the 22 day old embryo as a pair of shallow grooves on the sides of the forebrain. Cyclopia implies the loss of the midline tissue as a result of the underdevelopment of the forebrain and frontonasal prominence (a part of the embryo that will eventually develop into the forehead and bridge of the nose).

Roughly, this condition affects 1 in 250 embryos, but most of the foetuses are lost in the early stages of pregnancy. It is believed that genetic problems and environmental toxins are the main causes of complications that affect the forebrain-dividing process, with teratogens (agents that give rise to birth defects or malformations) being singled out as the principal culprits. One such chemical is, ironically, called cyclopamine (a lot handier than the overly-scientific 2-deoxyjervine) and it is a toxin found in the plant Veratum Californicum (does ‘corn lily’ or ‘vetch weed’ sound familiar?). Because of its similarity to hellebore (a natural remedy for vomiting, cramps and poor circulation, three ailments often experienced during pregnancy) it can be easily ingested by sheer mistake. Moreover, cyclopia can also occur in the womb when certain proteins are inappropriately synthesised and they coax the brain into staying whole instead of dividing into two distinct hemispheres.

The documented history of cyclocephaly can be dated back to Ancient Greece (because, let’s face it, chances are that the legendary figure may have been inspired by a real case), but the 17th century compendium ‘De Monstrorum’, edited by the Italian scientist Fortunio Liceti, contains one of the first detailed drawings and descriptions of this condition. The 1896 book ‘Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine’ also characterises a cyclopic baby boy, who survived for 73 hours, as having ‘median fissures of the upper lip, preauricular appendages, oral deformity and absence of the olfactory proboscis’ (in other words, an abnormal mouth, abnormal ears and no nose).

Unfortunately, the Indian-born infant only survived for one day, because he also suffered from hydrocephalus (accumulation of water within the brain). So, if all of this has not made you completely squeamish, you should bear in mind that cyclopia is not restricted to humans: there are chronicled cases of pigs, kittens, colts and lambs suffering from the condition. Just Google ‘Cy’ to have a look at the kitten born in Oregon in 2005, who’s now on display in the Lost Word Museum, Phoenix, N.Y. Furthermore, if this has really intrigued you, pop down to the New Medical School, University of St Andrews one day, go to the dissection room and ask the technician to show you the cyclops skeleton that’s on display – you won’t be disappointed.


Julie Kanya