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Understanding The Mind By Mapping The Brain

August 8, 2011

By Miles O’Brien, Science Nation Correspondent

Picking people’s brains is a good way to learn about their minds, says neuroanatomist Jacopo Annese.

“We’re studying brain structure and trying to understand how the architecture of the brain supports our behavior, our thoughts, our memories, our way of thinking,” says Annese.

Annese heads the Brain Observatory at the University of California, San Diego. It’s where he and his team look for connections by mapping brain structure and connecting it to human behavior. Support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) helped Annese launch the Digital Brain Library back in 2008 when he acquired the brain of a man who couldn’t remember anything for more than 20 seconds. Since then he has acquired about 35 donated brains and has been examining their physical characteristics. The process starts with slicing the brain into tiny slivers.

“The brain is sliced into thin sections, serially, going from one tip at the front to the back. And this is an operation that lasts a few days because you go very slowly,” says Annese. A normal-sized brain produces about 3,000 slivers and each slice is no thicker than a human hair. Each sliver is placed on glass, is stained, and is digitized. Eventually, all the slices are digitally re-assembled, creating a virtual 3-D image of the brain.

“If somebody has a pattern of behavior during their life, is that pattern of behavior reflected in the structure of their brain? Can we see it?” asks Annese.

To help answer those questions, Annese seeks out people who knew the donors and what they were like while alive. “It is fascinating to try and connect a life with the actual brain,” he says.

But locating those who knew donors can be a challenge. So Annese is looking for donors to commit to the program while they’re alive. Ninety-two-year-old Bette Ferguson signed up, and she has no regrets about willing her brain to the observatory when she dies. “I’m proud of it,” says Ferguson. “I mean look, I’m not going to need that brain anymore. Once I graduate, goodbye! If he can take that brain and learn something from it, I think that’s important because he’s studied me.”

In addition to assessing her cognitive abilities, Annese will ask Ferguson about her unique life experiences like her role in the movie “The Wizard of Oz.” “I was the flying monkey that came down and picked up Toto and took him to the witch’s castle,” notes Ferguson.

Annese is curious as to whether or not there are similarities between the brain of Ferguson and other individuals: those who have aged successfully and women or men with similar talents. He believes understanding the link between one’s brain and behavior could very well lead to insights into treating brain injuries or diseases.

Now there’s something to think about.

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