Dear Humans, We Want Your Brains. –Neuroscientists

By Veronique Greenwood | April 22, 2011 3:45 pm


The UC San Diego Brain Observatory would like your brain, please. Especially if you can provide a detailed life history—or, best-case scenario, have already had your biography written—and are just a little strange in the head. Can’t feel fear? Can’t form memories? Can’t smell? These are traits of the people the Observatory already has on its rosters (they have 20 brains and 7 still-living donors), but director Jacopo Annese of UCSD is looking to recruit 1,000 more prospective donors over the next ten years. Apparently one brain he’d love to get his custom-made brain-slicing machinery on is Donald Trump’s: The guy’s had an unusual life, he explains to Bloomberg News, and with more than 15 books and a reality show to his name, he is nothing if not well-documented.

The Observatory is the outfit that made news in 2009 when it added the brain of H.M., a famous amnesiac who could remember only the last 20 seconds, to its collection. (The slicing process, which took two days and was streamed live, was watched by 400,000 people.) Established to study how ephemeral characteristics like personality, memory, and emotion are reflected in the physical structure of the brain, the Observatory records vast tracts of data about donors, from MRI images to cognitive tests to questionnaires, and, once the brains themselves are freed up, slices them into thousands of thin sheets and reconstructs them into computer models for study.

From a scientific perspective, the Observatory’s purview is pretty broad—personality is rather nonspecific, to say the least—and so far the work is more information curation than hypothesis-driven research. But the sheer amount of information Annese’s team is gathering is impressive: a single brain, once sliced and recorded, takes up a petabyte of storage space. And in a nice cross-referencing touch, any research that’s already been done on the individuals—for instance, the donor who can’t fear was the subject of a study in December’s Current Biology—will be sent to the Observatory when the patient dies.

So do you have what it takes to be a brain donor? Contrary to many headlines, it doesn’t sound like you have to meet some subjective level of “interestingness” to make the cut; on the Observatory’s donor page Annese emphasizes that they need the brains of “ordinary, healthy people” as well as those with neurological abnormalities. Abnormalities, one may speculate, that may include the desire to host a reality TV show and handcraft (or hire someone else to handcraft?) a double-combover each morning. A Trump spokesperson, Bloomberg News reports, declined to comment.

Image credit: hatchibombotar/Flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: What’s Inside Your Brain?
  • jacopo annese

    …actually the goal is to recruit 1,000 donors in 10 years.
    I liked the title.
    Coincidentally, I sent my apologies to Mr. Trump’s office for the manner he was put on the spot. I had just mentioned his name along with others discussing the neurological basis of personality and entrepreneurial success…. it was Bloomberg News, what else would I talk about?

  • harvey lacey

    I think this is a great idea. We share having different perspectives on things. It would be wonderful to find out how much of these differences are due solely to brain structure. If we are what we are because of what we are then we could justify modifying education to where it really works.

    I’m an inventor. I also believe I’m a little autistic. It would be nice to know if autism can be an advantage in some areas of our lives. I know that socially it’s not desirable but for problem solving I believe it streamlines the thought process.

    This is a good thing. We need good things.

  • Diane

    Excellent idea! I especially like the idea of documenting the life of the brain – what experiences, dreams, goals and aspirations led to it’s development. More information is always better. Would be great to have a contact or direct link to be able to donate.

  • Veronique Greenwood

    @jacopo, fixed! Thanks for letting me know. That did seem like a somewhat ambitious number.

    @Diane, you can check out the Brain Observatory’s site and its donor page via links given in the article. Good luck!

  • jacopo annese

    Ciao Veronique,
    It is great to be able to follow and dialogue with the press directly.
    I am also glad your post stimulated some comments, and even a potential brain donor!

  • Vex

    Fantastic idea! So much of how the brain functions is unknown to us – compiling brains from people with different characteristics may yield some surprising results!

    I too would be interested in donating. I’ve always been keen on the idea of donating my body to science. Recently read Mary Roach’s book, Stiff, and now I’m 100% sure of it.

    On a completely unrelated note – does anybody else see the striking resemblance between HM and Adam Brody? If there were ever future plans of developing a movie based on HM, my vote goes to Brody for the part.

  • Luc Desaulniers

    They should start by sending an invitation to all politicians. They’ll get a lot of takers that can’t think.

  • Stephen Pickett

    @harvey lacey: You can’t be a little autistic – you either are or you aren’t, though people can have different experiences with it as it is a spectrum disorder. One person may have more trouble in one area, whereas someone else could have more in another.

    You may want to look up Asperger’s Syndrome, which is very similar to Autism. I have recently been diagnosed with this, though few people know – the reason being that I have managed to overcome (or hide) most of the downsides, and I think it actually possesses upsides which have helped me become very successful in my career in IT.

  • jacob fox

    ewwwwwwwww why would you donate your brain when your living. don’t you think it’s kinda evil to have living people donate there brains when there living? even when they are dead it’s disgusting to slice up a brain…


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