Sunday, August 29, 2010

Brains, recovered and rediscovered

At Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, is a collection of 650 human brains (2nd image) amassed by American neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing (1st image). They were donated - along with meticulous medical records, before-and-after photographs of patients, and anatomical illustrations - on his death in 1939. The collection represents a pivotal point in the field at the hands of its pioneer. “Cushing became the first surgeon in history who could open what he referred to as ‘the closed box’ of the skull of living patients with a reasonable certainty that his operations would do more good than harm,” writes medical historian Michael Bliss. After sharing an office with a professor of neuropathology in the 1960s and residing in the basement of a dormitory in the 1980s, the brain collection was reorganized partly as a result of Christopher J. Wahl's dissertation about it. The Cushing Collection was the subject of Sonja Collins' first story for Yale Medicine Publications. She describes, "Naturally, I was terrified, so it seemed only fitting that my assignment took place in a tiny dark room full of hundred-year-old jarred brains." Most of the specimens have now been restored and The Cushing Center has been designed to house them.

At the University of Minnesota in Mankato, there are hundreds of brains (4th image) stored and studied by American epidemiologist and neurologist David Snowdon (3rd image) and now researchers Kelvin Lim and Karen Santa Cruz. These are the brains of some of the 678 nuns from the convent School Sisters of Notre Dame who have participated in a 20-year study of Alzheimer's disease funded by the National Institute on Aging. Being such a homogeneous group, the nuns - some of whom are now more than 100 years old - have provided an invaluable resource. They undergo a series of annual tests during their lives and donate their brains after death. "[The brains are] the wet records. We have the dry records up here in terms of paper records," said Dr. Lim. From these women, Dr. Snowden found that the linguistic density (complexity, vivacity, fluency) of autobiographical essays the nuns wrote at an average age of 22 was a significant predictor of whether they later developed Alzheimer's. The idea caught on and sisters from several more orders, including the Congregation of St. Joseph in La Grange Park, Illinois, have also been participating in "nun studies."

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