After decades languishing in jars in the closet of an animal lab at the University of Texas, approximately 90 brains removed from mental patients are finally being documented—by a photographer and by college freshmen.
Photographer Adam Voorhes found the collection a few years ago when he came to Dr. Tim Schallert’s lab at UT Austin in search of a brain to help illustrate a Scientific American article. “It was something about ‘protecting your brain’ or ‘barriers for the brain,’” Voorhes told me. ”They wanted to photograph a human brain in like a bell jar or a case or armor. Anything to show a brain being protected.”
Voorhes got the normal brain he needed, and was about to take it back to his studio to photograph, when Dr. Schallert asked if he wanted to see some more abnormal brains. Voorhes described being led through an animal research facility to a storage closet with one wall lined with chemicals, and another wall lined with jars full of brains unlike any he had ever seen before. “Some of them are huge, some of them are really tiny. There was one that had no wrinkles at all,” he said. “I don’t even know how to explain it.”
The brains had been amassed over the course of 30 years by a medical pathologist at the Austin State Hospital, who preserved them after routine autopsies. When they were discovered in the mid-1980s, they were the subject of a high-profile battle, as institutions vied to house and study them. “Harvard Scientists Lose Minds: University of Texas Wins Brain Collection” ran one headline.
Though Texas won out, according to Voorhes the brains appeared largely forgotten, and the medical records associated with them had been lost. The only information that remained were descriptions and dates written on stickers: “Down’s Syndrome 02/10/83,” “Mikrencephalia 05 December 1973” “Hydrocephalus internus May 6, 1970.”
“It took me about 15 minutes to get my head back on straight,” Voorhes said. But once he did, he knew he wanted to photograph them. Dr. Schallert said they needed cleaning and fresh chemicals; Voorhes offered to pay for this in exchange for permission to photograph. Months later, back at Dr. Schallert’s lab for another human brain photo shoot, they sealed the deal for “something like $600,” and over the course of a weekend, Voorhes put on gloves, set up a studio in the brain lab, and carefully made 230 images.
Voorhes is collaborating on a book project that will feature his photographs and the writing of journalist Alex Hannaford.
But another form of documentation began taking place last month: 3-dimensional scans, performed by students in the “brain pathology” stream of the UT’s Freshmen Research Initiative—a program to give first-years a taste of real science. “Some of the reactions were along the lines of 'Oh wow! 'Hey cool!'" said Dr. Jeffrey Luci, who manages the imaging center and runs the brain pathology program. “Others were like ‘Oh my god!’”
The students have been doing both magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) as well as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI)—techniques invented in the 1990s, years after the brains’ rediscovery, and usually employed on living subjects. Dr. Luci said some adjustments would be made to that process. “We’re probably just going to go down to Target and get some Tupperware and put the brains in Tupperware and image them in that," he said. Unlike living brains, these could be scanned for hours without complaint, allowing for detailed scans in three dimensions rather than a series of flat slices. Even without the associated medical files, Dr. Luci said these would provide a useful educational tool.
Dr. Luci expected the project to stretch into the fall, but at least some students have already offered to help out through the summer. “This is like Six Flags for them,” said Dr. Luci. “But,” he added, “research always takes longer than you think it’s going to.”