Friday, 12 October 2012

House Magazine: The Brain Observatory

I went slightly off piste with this one, admittedly... but for the recent issue of Soho House's House magazine I interviewed Jacopo Annese of The Brain Observatory at the University of San Diego, California, about his team's efforts to digitally preserve donated brains in order to extend the realms of knowledge and research into how our old grey matter works. It's still largely a mystery, so the work The Brain Observatory is doing has potential for some groundbreaking discoveries in future. I've always found anatomy absolutely fascinating, so it was a real pleasure to branch out into a bit of (very basic) science writing. Don't be squeamish, it's very interesting...


The Brain Observatory

How one scientific team’s mission to photograph and analyse the human brain could unlock the secrets of our creative minds

Stop for a moment to consider the myriad of cognitive processes you’re currently deploying to read these words, all that wonderful action going on between your ears. Then, when you’re done, consider that conventionally, at the end of your life, your brain will be burned or buried along with the rest of your dead self. It does seem rather a waste – and whether you believe in an afterlife or not, you can’t take it with you.  Enter Dr Jacopo Annese, founder of The Brain Observatory at the University of California, San Diego, who works on the grey matter of a kind array of donors, allowing them to live on in the digital domain. In a process that takes place over eight months, Annese and his team pickle, freeze and then slice to a hairs-width each brain, before dyeing each slice and taking a 1-terabyte sized detailed digital composite image. There can be up to 2,500 slices in a brain and, Annese says, ‘once you dive into the high-resolution histological image at a cellular level, then it becomes an enormous landscape that, despite centuries of investigations, remains still largely uncharted.’

Add to this the data the team collects from the donor while they’re still alive – cognitive tests, interviews, photos, MRI scans – and you have a highly precise ‘neurological portrait’.  ‘It illustrates the detailed design of the brain,’ he continues. ‘How its microscopic structure reflects who we are, and how the relationship between structure and behaviour changes as we age or face the progression of neurological disease.’ It’s a humanistic approach that leaves a more holistic record of a brain and its owner (rather than just the artifact) for future scientists to study. But not everyone agrees with the approach. ‘Some people frown at the idea that we qualify these brains for who they were because they think that it’s useless,’ Annese says. ‘[They think] the important thing is in the tissue and not really the biographical aspect of the brain because the link is so far removed now.’

But by piggybacking on code and technology from the likes of Google, The Brain Observatory is developing an open access 3D atlas of the brain, therefore making it possible that this gap might one day be narrowed. Scientists the world over will be able to access the digitised brains online and collate evidence for theories on aspects of personality such as creativity. Simply labelling the brain as that of a painter means that, after time and an accumulation of brains in that category, it might just be possible to spot similarities in, say, the visual cortex of painters and create significant statistical evidence about that particular brain function.  Lest the painters of San Diego start losing sleep, Annese’s not out to get them. ‘I never approach someone for a brain,’ he says. ‘I just talk about the project and people are interested if they’re the right people.’

There is of course a flipside of getting to know your donor – sawing the skull and extracting the brain of someone you may well consider to be a friend can’t be easy. ‘It’s still philosophically a strange challenge because you have to make the switch from working with a person to working on an inanimate brain in that moment and then there is this metamorphosis. It’s hard to reconcile the anatomical work with everything you’ve done with them,’ Annese explains of this situation. But he adds that since his research team knows the person behind the specimen they put a lot of care in the procedures, reducing the chance of mistakes. Essentially, they want to do right by that person, and having known them in fact makes things easier

For Annese, his real triumph will be deferred to such a point when future scientists delve into the vaults and advance our collective knowledge of the complicated but beautiful tool that is our brain. Even he will one day become part of the brain library. ‘I told my team I’ll be watching them from the fridge...’ he quips. That’s what you call dedication.

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