Jacopo Annese is seeking 1,000 brains for the University of California San Diego Brain Observatory, but first, he's getting to know some of his future donors while they're still living.
Annese, a neuroanatomist, takes a humanistic approach to exploring how our brains make us the people we are. By using MRIs to study healthy and diseased brains in the living, and after their deaths, digitally scanning ultra-thin slices of their brains for 3-D models, he hopes to elucidate the relationship between brain structure and personality, memory, emotion and of course, illness.
So far, he's collected brains from 25 deceased men and women, many of whom he's "met" through life stories and medical histories gathered from their friends and relatives. He said he's found the extraordinary in ordinary people's lives.
Among the people he's come to know posthumously: a 50-year-old painter of horse portraits who succumbed to a heart condition and a 56-year-old woman whose sister painstakingly documented the five years before she died of early-onset Alzheimer's disease. In conversation, Annese, a native of Florence, Italy, speaks with reverence about "the beautiful glass slides" holding thinly shaved tissues from their brains.
Like a politician cultivating campaign contributors, Annese also cultivates relationships to assure the future of the project for which he hopes to obtain 1,000 brains by 2020. His ideal donor list would include prominent people whose behavior and personality already have been chronicled.
After recently suggesting to Bloomberg News that real estate mogul Donald Trump would be an ideal donor, Annese later said he regretted putting Trump "on the spot." He said he never tries to convince someone to donate, preferring instead that potential donors seek him out.
Bette Ferguson, of Mission Hills, Calif., who played one of the flying monkeys in the 1939 movie, "The Wizard of Oz," volunteered to have her brain digitally preserved after reading about Annese's work in her local newspaper. At 92, her brain is still sharp, which has also made for a warm friendship with Annese.
Clinton R. Spangler of La Jolla, Calif., an 83-year-old aerospace industry retiree who suffers from essential tremor, became so intrigued after hearing Annese speak in 2009, that he tracked him down and suggested both he and his wife, who has the same disorder, contribute their brains to his studies.
The more that brains like theirs can be studied, "the more probable the outcome might be for finding a cure," Spangler said. One of his children initially expressed reservations about the brain donations, but Spangler said: "If I can make some progress in science through donating a body I no longer need, I'm very happy to do that."
Boosting brain bequests requires making the public perception about brain donation "less ghoulish," Annese said. Some famously pickled brains have been objects of fascination, such as that of Albert Einstein, kept by the pathologist who preserved it in 1955. Annese said his brain bank could be "a Library of Congress for the human brain," where he's the curator, assuring "everything is well-curated and accessible." As of Monday, a dozen people had signed up to donate upon their deaths; the lab was continuing to field inquiries.
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."