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Wellcome Image of the Month: Celebration of the brain

9 Sep, 2011

Recently, the Wellcome Trust supported a play called 2401 Objects. It tells the story of Henry Molaison, who suffered from epilepsy and underwent experimental surgery in an attempt to cure his frequent and often disruptive seizures. Unbeknown to Henry at the time, the operation was set to become one of the most influential case studies in the history of neuroscience research.

Patient HM, as Henry later became known within the research community, provided a rare but hugely powerful insight into the cognitive and neural organisation of memory, both experimentally and theoretically.

So, with a new academic term on the horizon – a time when we all need some gentle memory jogging to remember what we were actually working on pre-holiday – we thought it only appropriate to highlight this historical representation of the brain as our Image of the Month for September, and in doing so capture the story of one of the most famous brains in neuroscience.

The image comes from Anatomie et physiologie du systeme nerveux en general, belonging to Wellcome Library’s Rare Books Collection. The title translates as; “anatomy and physiology of the nervous system in general”, and was written by Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Caspar Spurzheim, published in 1810, Paris.

Gall was a neuroanatomist and physiologist from Switzerland, and worked with Spurzheim – a physicist from Germany – to develop the concept of phrenology, a method used to determine personality and development of mental functions based on external measurements of the skull. Although now deemed scientifically unsound, phrenology was a pioneering step in neuroscience relating the structure of the brain to its function.

Surgery was performed on Henry in 1953, a time when knowledge and understanding of brain function was still rather limited. During the operation, surgeons removed the majority of Henry’s medial temporal lobe, including both hippocampi – a structure which we now know is important in the formation and storage of memory. Although Henry experienced fewer seizures post-surgery, the operation left him with severe amnesia for long-term memory and an inability to make new memories.

Henry died on December 2nd 2008. He donated his brain to The Brain Observatory at the University of California where a team of scientists dissected it into 2401 pieces. The aim, along with help from other donors, is to create an open-access virtual microscope of the brain that will enable better understanding of memory and associated neurological disorders now and in the future.

Since publication in 1957, the original research paper documenting HM’s surgery and subsequent memory loss (Scoville and Milner; Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and psychiatry) has been cited over 3000 times. With Henry’s legacy continuing posthumously, it is likely that his story will remain prominent and influential in current and future research.

Ruth Milne, Wellcome Images

2401 Objects is a co-production between Analogue, Oldenburgisches Staatstheater and New Wosley Theatre, which premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last month where it received a Scotsman First Fringe award for best new writing. The play tours the UK in 2012.   

Wellcome Images is one of the world’s richest and most unusual collections, with themes ranging from medical and social history to contemporary healthcare and biomedical science. All our images are available in digital form so please click the link above if you would like to use the picture that features in this post, or to quickly find related ones. Many are free to use non-commercially under the terms of a Creative Commons licence and full details of the specific licence for each image are provided.

Image credit: Wellcome Library, London

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