Want to look into someone’s brain?

Doctors and scientists know the easiest way: Scan it. There are at least a half-dozen technologies available to perform a brain scan, from EEG and CAT to PET and fMRI.

It’s a far cry from many decades ago, when scientists had little choice but to open up a brain after someone died and poke around. Now, The New York Times reports, the brain-slicing project at UCSD is bringing the past back to the laboratory by resurrecting the art of brain dissection:

“The advent of brain imaging opened up so much,” said Sandra Witelson, a neuroscientist with the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University in Canada, who manages a bank of 125 brains, including Albert Einstein’s. “But I think in all the excitement people have forgotten how important the anatomical study of brain tissue still is, and this is the sort of project that could really restart interest in this area.”

The University of California project — called the Brain Observatory, set up to accept many donated brains — is an effort to bridge past and future. Brain dissection is a craft that goes back centuries and has helped scientists to understand where functions like language processing and vision are clustered, to compare gray and white matter and cell concentrations across different populations and to understand the damage done in ailments like Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.

We’ve been following the UCSD project, in which scientists are slicing the brain of Henry Molaison, better known as “H.M.,” a famous amnesiac who died last year. (In today’s story, NYT has a remarkable photo of his brain encased in a mold of gelatin.)

Almost exactly a year ago, we profiled UCSD’s Dr. Jacopo Annese, who was waiting to travel east to pick up what we described as “perhaps the most anticipated brain since Albert Einstein’s.

“I see it in a romantic way — I think I am writing a biography,” Annese told us. “We will revisit his life by slicing through this brain and studying those structures that gave him the life he experienced.”

We also wrote earlier this year about another UCSD project called “The Whole Brain Catalog” that’s “envisioned as an open source venue that hopefully will host all the information available on the mouse brain.”

According to the NYT, the brain-slicing project will create something similar, “what Dr. Annese calls a ‘Google Earthlike search engine,’ the first entirely reconstructed, whole-brain atlas available to anyone who wants to log on.”

What’s next? Researchers will place the slices onto slides, the NYT reports, and use stains to highlight the bits of brain. Then, the paper says, “if all goes as planned, and the Brain Observatory catalogs a diverse collection of normal and abnormal brains — and if, crucially, other laboratories apply similar techniques to their own collections — brain scientists will have data that will keep them busy for generations.


Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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