The Memory Remains

    His plan: divide the organ into about 3,000 paper-thin sections, mount them on microscopic slides, record their images and upload them to the observatory’s online data base ‘mdash; all in hopes of creating a gigantic library of brains that navigates like Google Earth.

    However, actual blade-on-brain action won’t begin for another two months. In the meantime, Annese is prepping the observatory for the procedure and seeking undergraduates who want to help out.

    First, the observatory’s team will place the brain in gelatin to undergo a two-month protection process; afterward, the brain will be frozen so that it can sliced horizontally, from top to bottom, like a butcher would slice deli meat.

    But who exactly is this Molaison, better known as H.M., and how did he become the brain community’s Britney?

    Molaison was injured in a bike accident when he was seven, and began to have minor seizures by age 10. At 27, Molaison was experiencing up to ten seizures per week, keeping him from properly functioning in society. He was then referred to brain surgeon William Scoville, who removed his hippocampus ‘mdash; a sea-horse-shaped brain structure located five centimeters from the outside edge of the ear canal.

    After this experimental 1953 surgery, Molaison retained his childhood memories, but couldn’t form new ones.

    ‘That was the most dramatic thing,’ said James Brewer, an assistant professor in radiology and neuroscience who conducts research at the Human Memory Laboratory. ‘Even things as salient as his own mother dying, or a man landing on the moon ‘mdash; he could not form memories for that material.’

    By studying Molaison, Canadian neuropsychologist Brenda Milner and her student assistant Suzanne Corkin discovered in 1962 that different aspects of memory are controlled by different parts of the brain.

    For example, Molaison could acquire new motor skills without retaining any memory of the learning process.

    ‘So, if you took him to play golf every day, every day you’d have to reintroduce yourself to him when you met him at his house,’ Brewer said. ‘He’d say he’s never seen you before. Every day you’d have to re-explain the rules of golf to him; he wouldn’t know that either. But every day he’d get better and better at the game of golf. He’d say, ‘I’ve never played this before,’ and then whack ‘mdash; he hits [the ball] 300 yards.’

    Corkin, currently a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, met Annese while they were working at UCLA.

    Two years before Molaison’s death in December 2008, Corkin asked Annese if he’d like the amnesiac’s brain; Annese agreed, and took the opportunity to get to know the man whose brain he’d later dissect and post online for the world to see.

    Annese was immediately aware of his responsibility to the medical community, and said he had nightmares about potential mishaps.

    ‘If I drop the brain on the floor, then I’m worried about this,’ Annese said. ‘You can never predict it. We’ve practiced a lot; we’re very confident about it. There’s always a little bit of uncertainty.’

    Despite this, the environment in Annese’s workplace is by no means tense. The lab is equipped with a well-endowed cappuccino maker, a fridge stocked with whipped cream, a couch for lounging and old-print Italian books for noncommittal perusing. The walls are scattered with vintage sketches of animal anatomies.

    According to Annese, Molaison’s brain won’t ‘hit the fan’ for another two months ‘mdash; but once the 35-consecutive-hour procedure goes down, the resulting slides will be broadcast live on the Internet.

    Most important to Annese is that a wide audience be able to use the mounted results: Scientists will have access to the brain and will be able to request specific slides for their research, while high school teachers could use the brain atlases to teach basic lessons in anatomy.

    ‘It’s about sharing resources, sharing tools, because [researchers] realize that everyone does [the work in] their own way,’ Annese said.

    Annese hopes to see the brain cut and mounted by summer’s end.

    ‘Once we start cutting, it’s really going to be a tour de force,’ he said.

    Readers can contact Alyssa Bereznak at [email protected].

    ” />

    Though Jacopo Annese appreciated the first-class digs on his Feb. 16 flight from Boston to San Diego, it’s doubtful that the plastic chamber next to him ‘mdash; filled with formaldehyde, cotton and the most studied brain in modern medicine ‘mdash; took much of a notice.

    Annese, assistant professor of neuroscience at UCSD and director of the university’s Brain Observatory, took the first step in a three-month project last month when he retrieved the brain of world-famous amnesiac Henry Molaison from a lab in Massachusetts, later to be transfered to his Sorrento Valley laboratory’s roomy refrigerator.

    ‘ ‘JetBlue was really nice,’ Annese said. ‘They gave us drinks. They were very helpful. They made sure I had the front row for me and the brain.’

    ‘ He may have been traveling with a rather silent companion, as celebrity brains tend to be, but those six hours in the air were Annese’s most intimate moments with Molaison’s brain before slicing it into thousands of pieces.

    His plan: divide the organ into about 3,000 paper-thin sections, mount them on microscopic slides, record their images and upload them to the observatory’s online data base ‘mdash; all in hopes of creating a gigantic library of brains that navigates like Google Earth.

    However, actual blade-on-brain action won’t begin for another two months. In the meantime, Annese is prepping the observatory for the procedure and seeking undergraduates who want to help out.

    First, the observatory’s team will place the brain in gelatin to undergo a two-month protection process; afterward, the brain will be frozen so that it can sliced horizontally, from top to bottom, like a butcher would slice deli meat.

    But who exactly is this Molaison, better known as H.M., and how did he become the brain community’s Britney?

    Molaison was injured in a bike accident when he was seven, and began to have minor seizures by age 10. At 27, Molaison was experiencing up to ten seizures per week, keeping him from properly functioning in society. He was then referred to brain surgeon William Scoville, who removed his hippocampus ‘mdash; a sea-horse-shaped brain structure located five centimeters from the outside edge of the ear canal.

    After this experimental 1953 surgery, Molaison retained his childhood memories, but couldn’t form new ones.

    ‘That was the most dramatic thing,’ said James Brewer, an assistant professor in radiology and neuroscience who conducts research at the Human Mem
    ory Laboratory. ‘Even things as salient as his own mother dying, or a man landing on the moon ‘mdash; he could not form memories for that material.’

    By studying Molaison, Canadian neuropsychologist Brenda Milner and her student assistant Suzanne Corkin discovered in 1962 that different aspects of memory are controlled by different parts of the brain.

    For example, Molaison could acquire new motor skills without retaining any memory of the learning process.

    ‘So, if you took him to play golf every day, every day you’d have to reintroduce yourself to him when you met him at his house,’ Brewer said. ‘He’d say he’s never seen you before. Every day you’d have to re-explain the rules of golf to him; he wouldn’t know that either. But every day he’d get better and better at the game of golf. He’d say, ‘I’ve never played this before,’ and then whack ‘mdash; he hits [the ball] 300 yards.’

    Corkin, currently a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, met Annese while they were working at UCLA.

    Two years before Molaison’s death in December 2008, Corkin asked Annese if he’d like the amnesiac’s brain; Annese agreed, and took the opportunity to get to know the man whose brain he’d later dissect and post online for the world to see.

    Annese was immediately aware of his responsibility to the medical community, and said he had nightmares about potential mishaps.

    ‘If I drop the brain on the floor, then I’m worried about this,’ Annese said. ‘You can never predict it. We’ve practiced a lot; we’re very confident about it. There’s always a little bit of uncertainty.’

    Despite this, the environment in Annese’s workplace is by no means tense. The lab is equipped with a well-endowed cappuccino maker, a fridge stocked with whipped cream, a couch for lounging and old-print Italian books for noncommittal perusing. The walls are scattered with vintage sketches of animal anatomies.

    According to Annese, Molaison’s brain won’t ‘hit the fan’ for another two months ‘mdash; but once the 35-consecutive-hour procedure goes down, the resulting slides will be broadcast live on the Internet.

    Most important to Annese is that a wide audience be able to use the mounted results: Scientists will have access to the brain and will be able to request specific slides for their research, while high school teachers could use the brain atlases to teach basic lessons in anatomy.

    ‘It’s about sharing resources, sharing tools, because [researchers] realize that everyone does [the work in] their own way,’ Annese said.

    Annese hopes to see the brain cut and mounted by summer’s end.

    ‘Once we start cutting, it’s really going to be a tour de force,’ he said.

    Readers can contact Alyssa Bereznak at [email protected].

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