Brain Collector Seeks Trump-Like Donors to Probe How Personality Is Formed
Jacopo Annese wants Donald Trump’s brain, literally.
That’s the example cited by Annese, a 45-year-old neurologist, in describing who might be the ideal candidate for a 1,000-donor campaign being run this year by his University of California San Diego brain bank. The center is seeking people who can supply detailed life histories before they die, and their physical brains afterward.
Annese already is working with a former flying monkey from the “Wizard of Oz,” and a woman who can’t feel fear. Trump’s history as a real-estate developer, author and TV star would be a good addition, he said. The center, begun six years ago, is creating novel technologies and strategies to help researchers study how personality, memories, emotions and other traits are reflected within the brain’s chemical and electrical signaling systems. Success, Annese said, depends largely on the depth of information shared by the bank’s donors.
The ideal is “someone with an interesting life, a politician or businessman whose biography has already been written,” he said in a telephone interview. “We want to write the last few chapters of their biography in neurological terms. We should go after Donald Trump, really; that’s a lot of work saved up front for us.”
While Trump, whose autobiography is titled “The Art of the Deal,” may fit the ideal, he may not be interested. Rhona Graff, a Trump spokeswoman, declined to comment.
Potential donors are queried closely by workers at the San Diego center. They’re asked about their medical histories, as well as where they lived, what jobs they held, how and what they like to eat, and their hobbies. The results, categorized and cross-referenced, can then be used by researchers to compare the physical makeup of the donors’ brains once they die.
“Once you really discover who these people are and what they did, the word ‘ordinary’ doesn’t fit,” Annese said.
The project received $500,000 in seed funding from the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Virginia, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, the Dana Foundation in New York, and private donors.
Annese is continuing to seek funding, even as the center embarks on its 1,000-brain campaign, Annese said. Imaging a complete organ requires about one petabyte of disk storage, or about 50,000 Blu-ray discs.
“We’re banking on the fact that digital storage will get cheaper as this goes along,” he said.
One potential donor is 92-year-old Bette Ferguson, who says she worked as an extra on the “Wizard of Oz” movie and, at one point, was strapped into a flying monkey suit when another actor wasn’t available. Her donation allows researchers to study a person whose memory remains perfectly intact, even at an advanced age, Annese said.
Ferguson was born on a World War I troop ship as it sailed back to the U.S., she said in a telephone interview. She recalls vivid details from each of her five marriages.
“I have five children and that’s my legacy, and that’s pretty good,” Ferguson said yesterday, explaining why she decided to sign up for the UC San Diego program. “If I can do more by donating my brain, why not?”
Annese, she said, “makes a point of really knowing people, and why we do what we do. That attitude is important, and it will help the future.”
The central idea behind the UC San Diego center was built around Annese’s work with a brain acquired in 2008, donated by a man named Henry Molaison, who couldn’t retain a memory beyond twenty seconds when he was alive. That organ was the first to undergo the complex process Annese now uses to produce all the images placed on the center’s open-access website.
Once the brains are recovered, they’re frozen and cut into 2,600 to 2,700 slices, each 70 microns wide, or about the width of a human hair. Each piece is then scanned on a microscopic level using proprietary technology developed at the center.
The images are then re-assembled into three-dimensional models that can be viewed wholly, or in dissected portions. Before he died, Molaison’s case was one of the most studied ever by neurologists, allowing the center to provide researchers with all of his personal and medical information.
The method lets multiple scientists access Molaison’s brain and medical information at the same time, helping speed up and expand research, according to Lynne Bernstein, program director for cognitive neuroscience at the National Science Foundation.
“Cognition, intelligence and love all have a biological basis,” said Bernstein, who helped coordinate NSF funding for the Molaison project. “How do we go from the cellular level, to the brain’s larger structural level, to what we observe in living humans when they remember, when they think, when they do things? That’s an open question. We need data at that level to start making those links.”
That’s where UC San Diego comes in. “It’s a huge endeavor,” Bernstein said. “That kind of science has been done in the past in pieces, but with tools now available, multiple scientists from multiple disciplines can easily get involved.”
An Iowa woman who can’t experience fear is the latest to agree to donate her brain once she dies, Annese said. Her case was chronicled in December in the medical journal Current Biology. Her donation offers the chance to study an organ that’s been injured by a genetic illness, he said.
The disease, called Urbach-Wiethe, destroyed the woman’s amygdala, an almond-shaped section that is a bridge between areas that affect fear. Researchers at the University of Iowa in Iowa City used snakes, spiders and frightening movies, along with interviews, to chronicle her response, the article said.
After she dies, that information will be funneled to UC San Diego, along with her physical brain.
“With a growing group of living, willing donors, we can really catalog many aspects of behavior and personality,” Annese said. “You never know what’s going to be important.”
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