Wednesday, January 29, 2014

After Death, H.M.’s Brain Uploaded to the Cloud

H.M. had one of the most important brains in the world, at least if you ask a neuroscientist. In 1953, at age 27, he underwent experimental brain surgery to treat the terrible seizures that had plagued him since childhood. The seizures quieted after surgeon William Beecher Scoville removed pieces of the temporal lobes above his ears — including, notably, large parts of the hippocampus — but it came at the cost of permanent amnesia. For the rest of his life, H.M. could only hold on to memories of events that happened before his surgery.

Though he couldn’t remember what he had for breakfast, H.M. could learn new motor memory tasks and had normal intelligence, illustrating both the specificity of the hippocampus and the multifaceted nature of memory. All of this we know thanks to decades of work by Suzanne Corkin and her colleagues at McGill University and MIT. As Corkin writes in her fascinating new book Permanent Present Tense*, “Henry’s disability, a tremendous cost to him and his family, became science’s gain.”

H.M. not only participated in hundreds of studies while he was alive, but donated his brain to science. The morning after H.M. died, a groggy and jet-lagged Annese knew that this brain tissue might pay scientific dividends for many decades to come — but only if the extraction went smoothly

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