The digital brain observatory

Brain observatory not just brains. Patient HM brain story

Nearly three years ago, one of the most-storied neuroscience patients passed away. Known in the literature at Patient HM, Henry Molaison had proved willing, time and again, to sit through the tests of researchers seeking to know why he could not form lasting memories. Every moment, every person he met, seemed new to him, every time. He even agreed, over and over, to donate his brain, so the probing could continue even into his body itself. His data was a catalyst for current theories of memory formation, and his willingness to participate has been a catalyst for even more.

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In their Brain Observatory Project, Jacopo Annese and colleagues at UCSD “digitize” the brains of people famous and not, sick and well. They freeze the tissues, slice them micrometer thin, and take high-resolution images of them. The images can be viewed as slices or as 3-D renderings; viewers can move and resize them, seeing general labels as well as detailed measurements. Mr. Molaison and his legal guardian agreed to donate his brain to the project, a generous gesture that had an immediate effect.

One of the goals of the project is open access: to give everyone who is interested the chance to see all of the data. My first encounter with the data was its collection: Along with thousands of others around the world, I watched the actual slicing of the brain, in real-time, online. It took more than two days, and I would check in every few hours to see how it was going. I felt like I was part of real science: exciting, addictive, inspiring. And I wasn’t the only one inspired.

The number of people interested in the project jumped, and so did the number of people willing to donate their brains. Donations of cash have also increased, helping expand the diversity of the collection. “I use the money of the rich to fund research on the brains of the poor,” dr Annese said.

Mr. Molaison’s willingness to share his story also opened the door to greater sharing of donor information. Said dr Annese: “For the first time, I had the freedom to talk about HM, and I could explain to the IRB,” the institutional review board that approves research, how patient information could be used ethically. Traditionally, research is anonymized (hence, “HM”), but, Annese argues, to truly know about the brain you need to know the history of the hm brain, which is the history of the person.

The board agreed, so for this project, researchers are collecting medical histories, oral histories, photos, whatever they can get. “The idea is to catalogue everything to do with their lives,” Annese said. Displaying his work in progress at the recent Society for Neuroscience annual meeting, he showed me a photo of Bette F. “She knows one day she’ll be a brain in our library.”

“It’s interesting what happens when the hm brain has a face,” he continued. “You cannot treat it without respect.” When one man recently died, dr Annese said, everyone in the lab had met him; they felt honored to do the work for which he had volunteered his brain. Looking at the screens as Jacopo Annese showed me around the software, I, too, felt a little different seeing a face in the left corner box as I zoomed around the brain regions in the box on the right. This was no image of an average brain, or a diseased brain—it was this particular person’s brain. I heard myself whispering my questions, so as not to disturb her too much.

Jacopo Annese expects the HM database to launch in December, exactly three years from Mr. Molaison’s death. Dana Foundation grants have supported this project.