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The Battle Over One Of The Most Studied Brains In Science

Penguin Random House
The book cover of "Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets."

The Battle Over One Of The Most Studied Brains In Science
The Battle Over One Of The Most Studied Brains In Science GUEST: Luke Dittrich, author, "Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets"

Much of what scientists know about memory comes from a man who could not form new ones. As a young man, Henry Molaison underwent an experimental surgery that left him with profound amnesia. Researchers interested in how the brain create new memories studied Patient H.M intensively for the rest of his life. Here is one researcher interviewing Molaison in 1992 when he was 66. When you are at MIT, what do you do during a typical day? Say, I don't remember things. Do you know what you did yesterday? No, I don't. How about this morning? I don't even remember that. After he died in 2008, his brain was moved to UC San Diego for research. It would not stay there. The custody battle over Patient H.M brain is detailed in a book out today called, "Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets." . David Wagner spoke with its author, Luke Dittrich. Welcome to Midday Edition. Thank you for having me. Remind us who Patient H.M was and how he should the current understanding of the human brain He was the most important human research subject of all-time. He transformed our understanding of how memory works. He was intensively studied for more than half a century and a lot of what we know, our fundamental advances in our understanding of human memory came from experiments conducted with H.M.. You have a close personal connection to the story. Can you tell us about that? Before he was Patient H.M he was a man from Connecticut named Henry Molaison who suffered from severe epilepsy. And very devout -- debilitating case. He and his parents came to a renowned neurosurgeon in Hartford, Connecticut who presented them with the option of his performing a radical experimental surgery on Henry to try to treat his epilepsy. He removed bilaterally the medial temporal lobes or most of the temporal lobes of Henry's brain. It did not do all that much for his epilepsy but it did render him profoundly amnesia. He lived the next half century in 32nd increments. The neurosurgeon who operated on him was my grandfather. That is the personal connection. Your grandfather was the one who turned Henry Molaison into Patient H.M to begin with That is correct. H.M. lived out his life in New England. Had his brain it up in San Diego? Prior to his death the researchers who worked with H.M. knew they wanted to be able to study his brain postoperatively in order to tease out some of the last remaining mysteries from its. Even the best neural imaging technologies of today, MRI, they are fairly broke -- low-resolution. There's no substitute for having the real brain in hand. One of the basic questions they had was the precise dimensions of the lesion that my grandfather left in Henry's brain. They arranged for, even though most of the experiment to work that was done with Henry while he was alive, most of it was conducted in New England. After he died, the researchers who worked with him in New England arranged for his brain to be transported to the University of California San Diego where narrow anatomist worked with his brain for years. He undertook an unprecedented effort to archive and preserve Henry's brain and histological and digital form. Slicing and imaging was done on the brain here in San Diego. And were talking about perhaps the single most famous brain and science in recent history. Today, his brain is no longer stored at UC San Diego. What was happening behind the scenes during this? Over a period of years, a custody battle began to brew over the possession of the brain. Ultimately the brain was taken away from the University of California San Diego and moved to MIT and Mass General Hospital's request to the University of California at Davis. You interviewed a lot of key players in this custody battle. You interviewed MIT neuroscientist, Suzanne Corkin, before she died earlier this year. She was very close to H.M.. She studied him throughout her career. Why did she want this brain move from UC San Diego? I think there were a number of issues at play. There are issues of data ownership and fundamental questions am not just data ownership but ownership of the physical brain itself. Those arose during this custody battle. I think one thing I found looking at the full sweep of the story of Henry Molaison was that often these odd and unsettling questions of proprietary feelings that researchers would develop toward Stephen Metcalfe would arise. I think that may have played a role, those feelings of possessiveness and ownership. When it came to the decision to move the brain from San Diego. You asked Suzanne Corkin in your interview how she planned to soar -- store some of the files that she had collected throughout her career. Adachi respond? This is one of the most shocking moments in the six years I spent working on this book. I asked her, given that the brain itself had been archived in this amazing way, what did she planned to do with the data that she had collected to have been amassed over her career, a career that she had spent working intensively with Patient H.M. She said that she was shredding it. She already had been shredding quite a bit of it and she planned to shred more in the future. I found it honestly to be a shocking and almost horrifying idea that anyone would shred the files of the most important human research subject. And I think that one of the most troubling aspects of that was that when you do that -- U-lock in stone your own telling of Patient H.M 's story. Hurst is not -- hers is one of cannot be scrutinized because the data underpinning that telling, if she did in fact do what she told me she had done, the data itself is gone. I found it to be a sad coda to Henry's story. This is a man who gave us so much. His loss was in a very real sense our game. Since an expert from your book came out in the New York Times Magazine, some of her colleagues at MIT have pushed back on your per trail of her. They say she was collaborative and that she, to their knowledge, did not destroy files. How would you respond to that? My response to the question of whether or not she destroyed the data -- if she did not destroy the data, that to me is the best possible outcome. If the data itself still exists. But if that is the case, then I am left with the question, why would she have told me that she had destroyed the data? She either did destroy it, as she told me she had, or she did not but told me she had. And it's one of those things that, it raises troubling questions either way it goes. That was science reporter, David Wagner. Speaking with Luke Dittrich, author of the new book, "Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets.".

The Battle Over One Of The Most Studied Brains In Science
Researchers interested in how the brain creates new memories studied Henry Molaison, or "patient H.M.," who became perhaps the most famous research subject in recent history. After Molaison died in 2008, his brain was moved to UC San Diego for further research. But it wouldn't stay there long.
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Penguin Random House
William Scoville is pictured in this undated photo.

He was perhaps the most studied research subject in history, but he constantly forgot he was being studied.

Known only as "patient H.M.” during his lifetime, Henry Molaison was unable to retain new memories for more than about 30 seconds.

In 1953, at the age of 27, Molaison turned to a Connecticut neurosurgeon named William Scoville for help with his severe epilepsy. Scoville ended up performing a radical operation that destroyed parts of Molaison's brain and left him with profound amnesia for the rest of his life.

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After his death, H.M.’s brain was moved to UC San Diego for further research. But it wouldn’t stay there long. The custody battle over H.M.’s brain is detailed in a new book by journalist Luke Dittrich, "Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets."

Dittrich wrote the book partly because he wanted to explore a dark chapter in his own family’s history. Scoville, the surgeon who turned Henry Molaison into “patient H.M.”, was Dittrich’s grandfather.

By leaving H.M. permanently stuck in the present moment, Scoville inadvertently laid the groundwork for fifty years of foundational research on the workings of human memory. Scientists studied H.M. intensively throughout his life. Thanks to this one patient, they made groundbreaking discoveries about which parts of the brain are crucial for different kinds of memory formation.

“Patient H.M. was the most important human research subject of all time,” Dittrich said. “He really transformed our understanding of how memory works.”

Molaison could recall memories he formed before his surgery, and he was able to learn new skills (his muscle memory remained intact). But with portions of his brain either removed or irreparably damaged, he couldn’t crystalize new information into long-term memories.

In one of the few recordings we have of H.M., a researcher asks him how he spends a typical day.

“See, I don’t remember things,” he replies. She asks what he did that morning.

“I don’t even remember that," he said.

The interviewer in that clip was MIT neuroscientist Suzanne Corkin. She was very close to H.M., studying him throughout her career. When he died in 2008, she helped transfer his brain to UC San Diego. There, a younger researcher named Jacopo Annese would section H.M.’s brain into thin slices and image it for all the world to see.

“The goal was to make an open-source brain,” Annese said. “We wanted to find a way to virtualize it so it could be looked at over the web.”

Annese live-streamed the delicate process of slicing H.M.’s brain. Hundreds of thousands of people watched online, and Annese thought the project was moving along successfully.

But behind-the-scenes, intense disagreements began to form between Corkin and Annese. He wanted to publish a paper highlighting a lesion in H.M.’s frontal lobe. Even though Corkin did eventually acknowledge the existence of this lesion, Annese said she initially tried to downplay its importance.

The paper detailing H.M.’s frontal lobelesion was eventually published, with Corkin and Annese both listed as authors. MIT officials say Corkin did not actively try to suppress information about the lesion. She discussed it publicly after the paper came out, saying, “Currently, it is unclear whether this lesion had any consequence for H.M.’s behavior.”

Dittrich’s new book reveals that these and other disagreements escalated into a full-blown custody battle over H.M.’s brain. Annese said it was a tense situation.

"You could really feel this tension between new science and old science,” he said. “Her expectations were different. She wasn’t able to let go of the control."

MIT and UCSD officials held a meeting at which Corkin handed out copies of H.M.’s “brain donation form,” a document signed by H.M.’s court-appointed guardian, a distant cousin of Molaison’s.

“She got up and said, ‘No, we decide where the brain goes, because we own the brain,’” Annese recalled.

Ultimately, H.M.’s brain was removed from Annese’s lab and sent to UC Davis.

“To me, that didn’t make any sense at all,” he said. “There was no scientific or logistic justification to request moving the brain.”

Annese resigned from UCSD early last year. He now runs an independent nonprofit in San Diego called the Institute for Brain and Society. The organization still hosts a digital map of H.M.’s brain on its website.

Corkin can not comment on Dittrich’s book, because she died earlier this year. Dittrich did get a chance to interview her before her death. In a recording from their exchange, he asks about her plans for the files she’d been keeping on H.M.

“Shredded,” Corkin replies.

“Shredded?” Dittrich asks. “Why would they be shredded?

“Nobody’s gonna look at them,” she said.

Dittrich said he was shocked to hear this.

"When you do that you kind of lock in stone your own telling of patient H.M.'s story,” Dittrich said. “Her own telling, now, is one that can no longer be scrutinized. Because the data underpinning that telling — if she did in fact do what she told me she’d done — the data itself is gone.”

Annese hopes Corkin did not shred any files. He wanted to image H.M.’s brain so that future researchers could reference it while reanalyzing old data collected on H.M. when he was alive.

“If Sue really did shred it, it’s like, what have I done all this work for?” Annese asked.

MIT officials don’t dispute the specific facts laid out in Dittrich’s book. But they do say Dittrich is using those facts to portray Corkin in an unfairly harsh light.

After an excerpt from Dittrich’s book was published in the New York Times Magazine, over 200 researchers sent a letter to the newspaper defending Corkin. One of them was MIT professor John Gabrieli, who was advised by Corkin as a graduate student.

“My personal impressions and the impressions of the field who’ve known her for decades was 180 degrees contradictory to what was portrayed in that article,” Gabrieli said.

“That’s why so many scientists were eager to put their name and reputation on the line to respond to what seemed to be a very misleading characterization.”

Gabrieli doesn’t know why Corkin told Dittrich she was shredding her files. MIT officials said, to their knowledge, she did not shred anything. They note MIT is still in possession of documents she kept on H.M.

Dittrich has writtenan online rebuttal to MIT’s points of contention. He said he’s just reporting what Corkin said herself. He was disturbed by the idea that historical information on H.M. could be permanently forgotten.

"I found it to be kind of a sad coda to Henry’s story,” he said. “This is a man who gave us so much. I mean, his loss was in a very real sense our gain.”

UCSD did not provide an official statement on its involvement in the battle over H.M.’s brain.