Annese obtains brains from organizations that arrange tissue and organ donations after death, and from direct bequests. He collaborates with neuropsychologists at other institutions to study patients with extraordinary neurological conditions, such as the Iowa State patient known as S.M., who cannot feel fear.
In 2009, The Brain Observatory live-streamed the cutting of what Annese called "the most important brain in the modern history of medicine," belonging to Henry Gustav Molaison, known in medical literature as H.M., who had recently died at 82. Surgery performed decades earlier to relieve debilitating epileptic seizures left him unable to retain new information longer than 20 seconds. The cutting, which drew 400,000 online followers, inspired "2041 Objects," a new play from the British theater company Analogue, which will be performed this summer at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.
The National Science Foundation and the Dana Foundation together provided the $500,000 for Project H.M., including development of tools that should continue providing "a very powerful way to make theories and test theories," said Lynne Bernstein, NSF program director for cognitive neuroscience.
"I would donate my own brain to the project," said Dr. David Lee Gordon, chairman of neurology at The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City.
Gordon said it would provide the "highest-resolution view thus far of the brain," and "allow for more sets of eyes to view the brains and, therefore, exponentially accelerate our knowledge of the brain."
Dr. Ausim Azizi, chairman of neurology at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, said the project's brain-imaging techniques could take "structure and function to a new level," but wouldn't have any immediate impact on treating disease.
Annese's former boss, Arthur W. Toga, director of the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, which maps the human brain using MRIs from thousands of people, said he was bothered by Annese's attempt to relate a person's personality through the examination of post-mortem tissue "because we don't understand the relationship between how cells are organized, and can be witnessed by looking at tissue, and the resulting personality traits that a person may possess."
Annese said he and his wife will both donate their brains, and he'd be delighted to have the digital library outlive him.
A dear friend, chef Roberto Bernardoni, 60, who owns Operacaffe in San Diego and frequently cooks with Annese for project fund-raisers, says he'll donate, although he's reluctant to sign because he doesn't want to think now about dying.
Said Annese, 45: "I don't want to think about it either. That's the catch."
Annese assured Bernardoni that "even if I die first," the project will live on and "somebody else will take care of you."