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Medicine Science

The Future of the Most Important Human Brain 252

Posted by Soulskill
from the do-neurosci-texts-read-as-cookbooks-to-zombies dept.
mattnyc99 writes "About a year ago, we watched live as neuroanatomist Jacopo Annese sliced the brain of Memento-style patient Henry Molaison (aka H.M.) into 2,401 pieces. Since even before then, writer Luke Dittrich — whose grandfather happened to be the surgeon to accidentally slice open the H.M. skull in the first place — has been tracking Annese and a new revolution in brain science. From the article in Esquire: 'If Korbinian Brodmann created the mind's Rand McNally, Jacopo Annese is creating its Google Maps. ... With his Brain Observatory, Annese is setting out to create not the world's largest but the world's most useful collection of brains. ... For the first time, we'll be able to meaningfully and easily compare large numbers of brains, perhaps finally understanding why one brain might be less empathetic or better at calculus or likelier to develop Alzheimer's than another. The Brain Observatory promises to revolutionize our understanding of how these three-pound hunks of tissue inside our skulls do what they do, which means, of course, that it promises to revolutionize our understanding of ourselves.'"
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The Future of the Most Important Human Brain

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  • An odd approach... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Rival (14861) on Monday October 25, 2010 @08:11PM (#34019694) Homepage Journal

    While I have no wish to demean their efforts, this approach still seems somewhat brutal to me. I'm no neurologist, but isn't this still a rather macro-level view of things, with the cutting process still causing damage to the fine structures they want to study?

    It seems likely to me that future scientists will look back at this in not too long with stifled laugher and perhaps a little shock at the approach.

    • by Raenex (947668) on Monday October 25, 2010 @08:47PM (#34019962)

      There are lots of ways to image and study the brain. This is just one more. Sure, in a hypothetical future they might be able to scan it down to the finest detail, but for now we do what we can.

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Whomp-Ass (135351)

        The major problem is that at the point of death (or at least, brain-death) is that the dendrites of the neurons detach from the axons of the surrounding neurons at about a rate that is the square of the of the difference over time of the inverse of temperature loss...meaning, by the time you slice-and-dice, the important bit (that is, the bits, rather...the connections and pathways that make you...well, you...are gone).

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday October 25, 2010 @08:50PM (#34019988) Journal
      It almost certainly is disrupting fine structures or details of network connections that future neurologists might want to study; but I suspect that this is one of those situations where they don't really have a choice.

      The brain is extremely complex, and nondestructive imaging methods are either expensive, low-resolution, or both. Good old slice-n-stain, with a dash of modern robotics, is cheap and high resolution.

      Since we know so little about how brains actually work, it isn't a bad idea to just build a giant dataset, using an economic and high-resolution technique, and hope that that dataset allows future researchers to pinpoint more closely what they should actually be looking for.

      Given that the supply of brains donated to science, while not huge, can be reasonably expected to continue into the indefinite future, starting with destructive; but quick, reverse engineering steps, and then gradually progressing down to finer, more focused ones, seems pretty sensible.

      A lot of the brains thus sliced will, it is true, be destroyed as far as the researchers of the future are concerned; but slicing them may be the only way to get the researchers of the future to a position of sufficient knowledge.
    • by TapeCutter (624760) * on Monday October 25, 2010 @08:51PM (#34019992) Journal
      Or as Douglas Adams put it - "If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a non-working cat."
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by DerekLyons (302214)

      While I have no wish to demean their efforts, this approach still seems somewhat brutal to me. I'm no neurologist, but isn't this still a rather macro-level view of things, with the cutting process still causing damage to the fine structures they want to study?

      Do you have a better way? Seriously, it's not like they haven't spent the better part of a century working out the sectioning techniques and steadily improving them.

      It seems likely to me that future scientists will look back at this in not to

      • by h4rr4r (612664)

        The same way we react in shock to those who operated without anesthesia.

        Are we so sure anyone ever did this on a regular basis?

        I ask because we have made alcohol for a long time, and known of plants that would have anesthetic applications possibly even longer.

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by hairyfeet (841228)
          My grandmother often told stories told to her by her grandfather who was in the Civil war, and yes, in the field hospitals it was pretty much "Hold him down, and get sawing" kind of deal. She said the weapons they used on the soldiers at the time also helped to crank up the barbarism, with soldiers often loading chains, nails, and anything else they could find into cannons when they ran out of shells. Sure we already knew about anesthesia, but good luck finding any in a muddy field hospital in the middle of
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by Sulphur (1548251)

            Much later: A physician was asked what course not in Med School contributed most to his career.

            Carpentry.

          • by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Monday October 25, 2010 @09:55PM (#34020450)

            She said the weapons they used on the soldiers at the time also helped to crank up the barbarism, with soldiers often loading chains, nails, and anything else they could find into cannons when they ran out of shells.

            This is not so likely to be historically correct as one might suppose. Fact is, what they fired out of cannons back then wasn't loose powder and shot, but a single bag containing powder and a cannonball. In other words, if you don't have any cannonballs (not shells), then you've got no powder to shoot nails and chains.

            Sure we already knew about anesthesia, but good luck finding any in a muddy field hospital in the middle of TN with a battle going on.

            Ether was used more than you might suppose in the Civil War. At least by the Union, who could afford to make the stuff and had the wherewithal to deliver it in quantity to their armies.

            Troops and doctors on both sides simply didn't realize it was gonna be such a hideous war, believing it would be a "gentlemen's conflict" like the revolutionary war.

            Anyone who believed in 1861 that the Revolutionary War was a "gentlemen's conflict" was so deluded about history that he can be excused for thinking that the Civil War was going to be one. Alas, history doesn't agree about the nature of the Revolutionary War.

            Note, for reference, that the people who tended to think in terms of "gentelmen's war" were mostly Southern aristocrats. Most of the soldiers on both sides weren't able to kid themselves that standing on a battlefield with 30,000+ other people trying to kill you was going to be a friendly sort of affair.

            a muddy field hospital in the middle of TN with a battle going on

            Oddly enough, I had a great-great-grandfather in just such a situation. Battle of Franklin, in fact.

        • The same way we react in shock to those who operated without anesthesia.

          Are we so sure anyone ever did this on a regular basis?

          Yes.

    • by interkin3tic (1469267) on Monday October 25, 2010 @09:17PM (#34020208)

      but isn't this still a rather macro-level view of things, with the cutting process still causing damage to the fine structures they want to study?

      No, the cryostat is designed to preserve things down to the subcellular level. Had they just cut it up with a scalpel, yeah, that would not preserve much. Fixing it with, say, paraformaldehyde, then freezing it and sectioning it, the sections do okay if you're skilled at it. You can see down to the neuron level.

      It seems likely to me that future scientists will look back at this in not too long with stifled laugher and perhaps a little shock at the approach.

      I personally am always astounded at what past scientists were able to accomplish with the tools at hand. Ramon Y Cajal, the "father of neuroscience" had primitive microscopes and a method of staining cells that sounds exhausting, but described the brain in astonishing detail. I personally doubt I could have accomplished what he did with the tools we have now. Unless future scientists are idiots, they'll likely realize that these are the best tools we have now.

    • The same applies to the dissection of other organs as well. For instance, any dissection of the heart is inherently biased towards the cutting planes defined by the dissector ( source [ctsnetjournals.org]). The true arrangement of muscle fibers in the left ventricle of the heart (more precisely the existence of sheet structure) is still a subject of hot debate because of this. Obviously, one might think that by now, we should be able to just pick an organ and throw it into the best relevant imaging scanner (CT, MRI, PET, etc.).

    • by fractoid (1076465)
      Not a troll, IMO. I presume Rival is reading the story with an interest in understanding the fundamental functioning of the brain, and if so, the visible, physical features of the brain only tell a quarter or less of the full story, which is a complex interplay of electrical and chemical signals.

      Then again, physical features are still important for gross scale understanding of the brain's structures, especially when cross-referenced among thousands of samples. If you want to know how Alzheimers, or Parkin
    • by ultranova (717540)

      It seems likely to me that future scientists will look back at this in not too long with stifled laugher and perhaps a little shock at the approach.

      Probably. "Look at these barbarians, who didn't use tools and methods which weren't invented until later!" It's not unlike the recent story deriding Newton for being an alchemist, despite that being entirely reasonable at his time - it makes the rest of us who couldn't invent Calculus or the Laws of Motion feel better.

      It's one of the more pathetic aspects of hu

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 25, 2010 @08:11PM (#34019702)

    Clearly this a front organization--for zombies!

  • For once, Slashdot has been too fast publishing an article. This one should have been released in Halloween, telling that scientists are competing with zombies in the used brains market or something similar.
    • For once, Slashdot has been too fast publishing an article.

      Sssssh! The /. editors don't want anyone to know they had a premature climax.

    • by blair1q (305137)

      I don't get why suddenly this Halloween has become the Zombie Festival.

      Maybe people didn't get enough of it last Easter and couldn't wait until next Easter.

      BTW, has anyone seen anyone selling a Sexy Zombie costume? It's, uh, not for me...

  • Here at the UW we harvest thousands of brains for various medical studies, and generally freeze half of the brain and slice up the other half and stain that half with various dyes, while taking electrical and other measurements within a few hours of death.

    While an approach like this described in the article might be useful for things like Pick's Disease, it would pretty much prove useless for Alzheimer's Disease, since that is an age-appropriate measurement of tangles and neurolytic fibers.

    Things like child

    • by tempest69 (572798)
      I'm supposing that since the HM brain has a defect in forming long term memories that it makes for a nice contrast to a normal memory forming brain. Perhaps it may provide a new minimum (floor) for amount of brain trauma required to stop memory formation. If the damage is small and neat, it may provide some clues as how memories are written.
    • by h4rr4r (612664)

      Is there a way to sign up for this?
      Does it impact organ donor status or anything else?

      It is my hope to donate whatever parts are usable for reuse and have the rest used for science. No point in wasting perfectly good meat.

  • Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [to Igor] Now that brain that you gave me. Was it Hans Delbruck's?

    Igor: [pause, then] No.

    Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Ah! Very good. Would you mind telling me whose brain I DID put in?

    Igor: Then you won't be angry?

    Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: I will NOT be angry.

    Igor: Abby Someone.

    Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [pause, then] Abby Someone. Abby who?

    Igor: Abby Normal.

    Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [pause, then] Abby Normal?

    Igor: I'm almost sure that was the name.

  • A tad overrated (Score:3, Insightful)

    by RockoTDF (1042780) on Monday October 25, 2010 @09:09PM (#34020130) Homepage
    HM was certainly a very important brain, but not *the* most important. There are plenty of patients out there with very similar injuries that have yielded equally (if not more) important discoveries. It is frustrating to see someone present research on medial temporal lobe damage that contradicts studies with HM and see other people be like "But HM!." They have to be reminded that six patients tested with superior methodologies to those around 30-50 years ago should come out on top. He made valuable contributions, but as a field I'd like to see memory research move on from HM.
    • by h4rr4r (612664)

      Surely this can be tested on rats.

      Make them learn stuff, damage their brains and try teaching them new stuff. Seems pretty open and shut.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by RockoTDF (1042780)
        Except there are LOTS of things rats can't learn, or that we can't ask them (...which is everything since they don't speak!). Not at all open and shut.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Waffle Iron (339739)

        Make them learn stuff, damage their brains and try teaching them new stuff.

        My friends and I survived that very experiment back in my college days. We used the "weekly drink special" methodology.

    • by gmuslera (3436)
      Wonder how important would have been Abby's brain. All the others in the Normal family were pretty average, but he was truly special, according to his doctor Frederick F.
    • Other than HM, the other patient coming to my mind is Clive Wearing - here is a very insightful article by The New Yorker back in 2007 - http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/09/24/070924fa_fact_sacks?currentPage=all [newyorker.com]

      Though I am not sure how much he contributed, but his case is every bit as (or more?) interesting as HM.

  • Dr. Frankenstein: [To Igor] Igor, may I speak to you for a moment?

    Igor: Of course.

    Dr. Frankenstein: Sit down, won't you?

    Igor: Thank you. [sits on the floor]

    Dr. Frankenstein: No no, up here.

    Igor: Thank you. [sits on a chair]

    Dr. Frankenstein: Now... that brain that you gave me... was it Hans Delbruck's?

    Igor: [Crosses arms] No.

    Dr. Frankenstein: [Holds up hand] Ah. Good. Uh... would you mind telling me... whose brain... I did put in?

    Igor: And you won't be angry?

  • ...whether we can still put into a great white shark.
  • by chrb (1083577) on Tuesday October 26, 2010 @04:48AM (#34022288)

    "whose grandfather happened to be the surgeon to accidentally slice open the H.M. skull in the first place"

    The surgery was no accident - it was a planned procedure that the doctors (correctly) thought would stop the epileptic seizures that H.M. was experiencing.

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