A Famous Brain Goes Under The Knife In Search For Memory Machinery

When it comes to the annals of scientific exploration, we're almost numb to dispatches from deep in the rain forest, the icy expanse of Antarctica and the bottom of the sea.

Henry Molaison.

Henry Molaison in the 1970s. MIT Museum hide caption

itoggle caption MIT Museum

So brace yourself for this Web update from researchers at the University of California, San Diego, who are publicly plumbing the essence of human memory by dissecting one of the most studied brains of our time:

"We have reached the corpus callosum. The team is resting for the night. The brain will be safe surrounded by our chillers until tomorrow morning. The cutting will resume again at 8AM PST."

The brain being shaved into astonishingly thin slices belonged in life to Henry Molaison, a Connecticut man who suffered from seizures after being hit by a car when he was 10 years old. In his 20s, the seizures became so debilitating that he underwent brain surgery that solved the problem but left him largely unable to form long-term memories.

After the surgery, Molaison, known in the scientific literature by his initials H.M., became instrumental in helping neuroscientists understand how the brain creates both short and long-term memories.

Molaison died a year ago of respiratory failure. He was 82. His brain was removed and preserved. Now scientists at UCSD's Brain Observatory are preparing ultrathin slices—2,500 of them—that will become part of a specimen library for scientists. Scans of the brain sections will be digitized and available online.

In a story about the project, the San Diego Union-Tribune notes the sectioning of Molaison's brain "represents a singular chance to advance scientific knowledge, but there is almost no room for mistakes."

Dr. Jacopo Annese, a neuroscientist who directs the Brain Observatory, told the paper, "It's a huge responsibility that many labs might not want."

You can learn more about the lab here.



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