Remembering H.M. and his Fascinating, Damaged Brain

By Eliza Strickland | December 9, 2008 6:01 pm

polaroidsThe most famous neuroscience patient and test subject died last week, and the researchers who worked with him say they’ll never forget the man who never remembered them. The patient known as H.M. lost the ability to form new memories after he had brain surgery at the age of 27, and studies of his behavior taught researchers basic lessons about how memory and learning work. “He was a very gracious man, very patient, always willing to try these tasks I would give him,” [said Brenda] Milner, a professor of cognitive neuroscience. “And yet every time I walked in the room, it was like we’d never met” [The New York Times].

Henry Gustav Molaison, a Hartford [Connecticut] native, existed in relative obscurity. But as “H.M.,” the name used to disguise his identity, Molaison gained an anonymous sort of fame, a man who had been studied by more than 100 researchers and became a staple of psychology class lectures…. “I’ve been lecturing about him and teaching about him for years and years, decades, and I’ve never known his name” [Hartford Courant], says psychiatrist David Glahn. Molaison died at a Connecticut nursing home on Tuesday at the age of 82, of respiratory failure.

Molaison began having seziures after a childhood bicycle accident, and by the age of 27 they were seriously interfering with his daily life. In 1953 surgeons removed two slices of his brain and cut into a region called the hippocampus–this stopped his seizures, but also gave Molaison a form of amnesia where he could remember events from before the surgery but couldn’t form any new long-term memories.

To the researchers surprise, however, Molaison’s short-term memory was intact and allowed him to hold a thought for about 20 seconds. Studying Molaison also proved that conscious memory is distinct from motor memory, the capacity that allows people to jump on a bike and ride after a hiatus of years. Researchers had Molaison perform a difficult drawing task repeatedly; each time it struck him as an entirely new experience. He had no memory of doing it before. Yet with practice he became proficient. “At one point he said to me, after many of these trials, ‘Huh, this was easier than I thought it would be,’ ” Dr. Milner said [The New York Times].

Even in death, Molaison will continue to help science–his brain is being preserved and shipped to the Brain Observatory at the University of California San Diego. When the famous organ arrives, researchers will undertake a complex, delicate, months-long process of sectioning it into thin slices like deli meat, simultaneously imaging the tissue with different technologies. Ultimately, researchers will be able to examine slices of Molaison’s brain at varying scales, even zooming down to the cellular level in a way similar to how Google Earth can be used [San Diego Union-Tribune]. Researchers will be able to study exactly how Molaison’s brain differed from that of a healthy person, and the public will be able to access all the images on the Brain Observatory’s Web site.

The researchers who worked with Molaison say they wish they could have made him understand what the world learned from his personal tragedy. “I am very indebted to him,” Milner said. “I constantly felt like it was such a shame we couldn’t reward him” because he couldn’t remember from moment to moment. “I would’ve liked to do something for someone whose [sic] done so much” for science [The Scientist].

Related Content:
80beats: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mouse: Scientists Erase Mice’s Memories
80beats: Can Erasing a Drug Memory Erase the Need for a Fix?

Image: iStockphoto

MORE ABOUT: learning, memory
  • Rose Balcom

    Anything involving the brain and brain chemistry has to be taken ultra-seriously. To even consider erasing a drug memory by altering the brain need only to look at the anti-smoking drug Champix. Then go look at the side effects of Champix which include depression, suicidal thoughts, mania brought on by Champix in some people. While your at it, look up the ‘class action’ lawsuit against the makers of Champix. You’ll have to decide if the side effects aren’t worse than the drug addiction. There are plenty of illegal drug use rehab programs around. How many program can cure the side-effects of these prescription drugs? Could be the cure could be worse than the ailment. chilly

  • Len

    The public will be able to “Google earth” H.M.’s brain? The mind reels. (Okay, okay, pun intended.)

  • Bob

    Rose, I’m not so sure what you mean. This article had nothing to do with erasing memories, anti-smoking drugs, or cures being worse than the ailment. The surgery happened 55 years ago. I was not around 55 years ago but the chances of him having brain damage after surgery were probably very high and well known to H.M. before consenting to the surgery. It was probably a last resort.

  • http://n/a john

    interesting replies but as pointed out how smoking relates to brain sugery is only know to the items poster. having lived since january of 1970 with less than half of the r.t.l.(truck struck) i am amazed how he unlike myself survied being in the care of the medical profession.
    if you want to find out what hell on earth is like i suggerst you take the effort to contact a abi owner, not a abi survivour, we own them and the problems that for whatever reason are sourced by them we NEVER survive them or the experiments that the medical espicially the nueorpsychs concoct for us. if you have the ability to or the stomach to watch it did up the videos put out as educational films and literature directed to all the classes of persons charged with caring for abi owners under the assitance of the province of ontario’s and the federal canadian government assited programs run by amos rolloiter as he worked in the hamilton canada psyciatric and chedoke hospitals of mcmaster unoiversity. the problem will be in finding the footage invoving a man named wade. dont eat before you view the films.

  • Eliza Strickland

    I think Rose was responding to the other posts that I linked to, which do deal with deliberately erasing memories (in mice).

  • Larian LeQuella

    Aren’t there two relatively celebrated cases in the UK about folks with no ability to retain any new memories? I know one is a former musician/conductor in England who is now in his 50’s I think, and the other is a young man in his 20s. Their names totally escape me at the moment.

  • Response to Larian

    Yes…they are the kids in he UK that were born without hippocampi and they experienced some of the same development issues as H.M.

  • ring

    74. Nice read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch as I found it for him smile So let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.

See More

Collapse bottom bar