The Dead Man's Brain Was Famous; the Battle Over It, Secret

Luke Dittrich on what happened after Henry Molaison's death
By Newser Editors,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 4, 2016 5:40 PM CDT
Updated Aug 7, 2016 10:03 AM CDT
The Dead Man's Brain Was Famous, the Battle Over It, Secret
Not HM's brain.   (Shutterstock)

(Newser) – Luke Dittrich doesn't mince words. In an adaptation from his new book published in the New York Times Magazine, he refers to Henry Molaison as "arguably the most important human research subject of all time." HM, as he was referred to in scientific literature, in 1953 underwent an experimental epilepsy operation that left him with amnesia so severe he was able to retain new information for just 30 seconds. The story of HM's life—he died in 2008—and what his brain has contributed to memory science (which Dittrich concisely summarizes) are well known. But Dittrich shares stories of two "astonishing, and troubling" things that have happened since: the fight over his brain, and a difficult interview he had with Suzanne Corkin, the MIT neuroscientist who spent decades by HM's side.

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Corkin and Dittrich have their own ties: Dittrich's grandfather performed the fateful operation on HM; Corkin grew up across the street, and was friends with Dittrich's mother. And yet she was largely inaccessible to him, agreeing only last fall, before her death, to speak. Dittrich details the "secret custody war" over HM's brain, a 2013 battle that pitted Corkin and MIT against University of California, San Diego, and Jacopo Annese, the neuroanatomist to whom Corkin originally handed the brain, which his team broke down into 2,401 slices. Complicating factors: the paper Annese was publishing that included a finding that could undermine some of Corkin's work; the "brain-­donation form" Corkin had that was signed by a "relative" with a tenuous connection to HM; and Corkin's "deeply troubling" admission to Dittrich that she intended to shred all the raw data she had collected on HM. Read the full piece here. (Read more brain stories.)

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