From the Archives: Patient H.M.

Four years ago, many of us sat transfixed watching a web videostream as the frozen brain of one of the most famous amnesiac patients in history was dissected, slice by slice. The plan was to image these ultrathin slices and put them into a public database all researchers could see. This week, the database was released along with a paper in Nature Communications on what researchers Suzanne Corkin, a DABI member, Jacopo Annese, and their colleagues found.

(a,b) Lesions in the deep WM were visible in postmortem T1-weighted MRI images acquired ex situ (scale bar, 1 cm) and were confirmed by myelin silver-impregnation40, 46 (c) and haematoxylin and eosin (H&E) staining (d). Scale bar, 5 mm.

(a,b) Lesions in the deep WM were visible in postmortem T1-weighted MRI images acquired ex situ (scale bar, 1 cm) and were confirmed by myelin silver-impregnation40, 46 (c) and haematoxylin and eosin (H&E) staining (d). Scale bar, 5 mm.

“H.M. wanted his brain to be beneficial to science,” Annese, director of The Brain Observatory, said in a story Dana published in 2010, “and we are trying to make it as beneficial as possible. By looking at the anatomy in detail we can elaborate on our assumptions about memory, because the exact anatomical mapping will show just how much of each section of his brain was removed [by surgery in 1953].”

Corkin first met Mr. Molaison through her work with Brenda Milner. In a 2010 interview, Milner, an Alliance member, recounted one of her insights from working with Mr. Molaison:

“When I saw that H.M.  had this beautiful learning of something he had no memory of having acquired, I then speculated that this task, which involved motor learning, depended on a different system in the brain. His surgeon had damaged his medial temporal system, but this was a kind of learning that was unaffected by this operation, so therefore it must involve other structures.”

Virginia Hughes posted a story this week at NationalGeographic.com bringing us up to date on the project; it also has a video clip showing the process of slicing the frozen brain. I remember staying up late to watch it as it streamed live (for more than four days!). I kept the video open (and the Twitter feed) all day as I worked, mesmerized by the idea of seeing science happening live. It also impressed our Brain in the News advisor, Alliance member Guy McKhann, who wrote a column about it.

Always willing to cooperate with researchers, Mr. Molaison said repeatedly toward the end of his life that he wished to donate his brain to science upon his death; his legal conservator agreed. The Dana Foundation, along with the National Science Foundation, funded part of the project to preserve this gift digitally to benefit science.

–Nicky Penttila

This entry was posted in From the Archives, memory, Neuroethics and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to From the Archives: Patient H.M.

  1. mindocr says:

    Reblogged this on Mindocr’s Weblog.

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