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Is Your Brain Worth Dissecting?


UCSD Medical School is looking for a few good brains. Over the next decade, the school's Brain Observatory is hoping 1,000 San Diegans will donate their brains for scientific research.

— Some people collect stamps, old coins, or works of art. Jacopo Annese collects brains. He's the director of UCSD's Brain Observatory. Inside his laboratory, large coolers line one of the walls.

"So here we have a refrigerator, and it contains the brains of our participants," Annese points out. "Now, these are individuals who have willed their brains to research."

The brains sit in large plastic containers. Annese said it's the beginning of a lengthy process to transform the brains into detailed digital images.

"Because what we do here, is actually we virtualize the human brain," Annese said. "And it becomes a collection of different images, at different levels of resolution and images created with different modalities."

The first step in the process is to obtain a brain right after a person dies. It's placed in a chemical solution, and put in the cooler for about eight weeks. Then, it has to be sliced up by a machine called a microtome.

"We generally cut an interval of 70 microns," Annese said, "which is 70-thousandths of a millimeter, so it's hair-thin. So you have typically between 2,500 and 3,000 slices for one brain."

The slices are placed on a glass slide, stained, and digitally photographed. The images are so data-rich, it would take 148,000 DVDs to store all of the information captured from just one brain.

In another part of the lab, Annese sits in front of a giant computer monitor. An image of one of the brain slices is on the screen.

"Thanks to the digitization, we can actually explore this particular section of the brain down to the level of the single cell," Annese said, pointing to the screen. "So just like Google Earth, when, from the main image of a region, you can zoom in and look at a single house, we're able to look at individual brain cells."

By having the entire brain digitized at this resolution, researchers may be able to detect subtle differences in how the brain is affected by different diseases.

That appeals to Clinton Spangler. He's 83 years old, and he's planning to donate his brain to the Observatory.

Spangler suffers from a nerve disorder called essential tremor. He hopes scientists can find something in his brain that could help other people who share his affliction.

"I think it's much better if it's put to some use for humanity, rather than just being put in the ground," Spangler said.

Patrice Lock's mother, Peggy, died last October. Peggy's brain is now being digitized. Lock said her mom had some special qualities.

"Her soul, if you will, is now departed," said Lock. "Her physical self is a completely separate entity. And the fact that that can be used for some good, I think is wonderful."

The Observatory doesn't just digitize people's brains.

Staff also work with family members to store the life history of the donors. Whenever possible, sound recordings of the donors are also archived.

Jacopo Annese said that information might become useful someday.

"And now who will be looking at your brain in 20 years?," he pondered. "It could be a neurologist, it could be a student, it could be an artist, who wants to learn how to draw brain cells, or it could be the next Michael Crichton, who wants to write a thriller about the brain. "

However it's used, Renae Farley is glad her older sister, Diane's, brain is at the Observatory. She died after suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's Disease.

Farley said in a sense, Diane is still around.

"I mean, that's what made it such a thrill for us, is that she does live on," Farley remarked. "Her story's being told, and hopefully people will learn from her, and she's still here watchin' us."

The Observatory has collected about 20 brains so far. By the next decade, it hopes to digitize 1,000 brains, and place all of the images on the web.

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