It’s like gazing into a mirror.
And a crystal ball.
And, in some ways, a history book – all at the same time.
The human brain offers an intriguingly triplicate view of ourselves, to those willing to spend the time looking.
In the right light – which would be, in Buffalo’s case, under the strong flourescent lights of a modest museum tucked into a nondescript building on the University at Buffalo’s South Campus – the human brain can seem like nothing less than a work of art.
“These are low-tech,” said Dr. Chris Cohan, a UB professor and the museum’s curator, gesturing to walls of neatly labeled, tidily shelved displays. “They’re a plastic box with liquid inside. There’s nothing technological about it.”
“But it’s the real thing.”
The real thing, in this case, is 85 human brains. All of them on display in the Museum of Neuroanatomy at UB were taken from donors over the past half century. Then they were painstakingly dissected to show the pathways – and perplexities – of the brain’s anatomy.
This display began as the passion of one man, Harold Brody. The brains it contains became the preoccupation of Buffalo medical students, who have used them to understand the healthy functioning, and the disturbing dissonances, of the brain in the 21st century.
And, to some, they remain an ongoing inspiration.
“It’s incalculable,” said Dr. L.N. Hopkins, a pre-eminent brain surgeon who is distinguished professor and chairman of neurosurgery at the University at Buffalo, of the value of the Buffalo-based brain collection.
“The technological, digital world we live in, does nothing but give you static images,” said Hopkins.
“If you don’t know what those images mean, you’ve got nothing.”
The brain as textbook
One brain weighs three or four pounds, a fraction of a person’s body mass. So the whole collection on display in Room 360 of UB’s Biomedical Education Building is roughly 350 pounds of scientific material.
There’s nothing fancy about the collection. No simulations or touch screens. Nothing lights up or downloads or makes any noise or connects to any websites.
And yet, some scientists said, this material could be the most valuable textbook some students may encounter in their training as medical professionals.
“The goal is really to educate people,” said Cohan, a professor in the university’s department of pathology and anatomical sciences, who has served as curator of the brain collection for the past two years.
“We use it to educate students. Dental students, medical students, physical therapy students, occupational therapy students.”
The museum takes up a small, angular wing of linoleum-covered floor space on the third floor of the 1980s-era medical building on the Main Street campus. It opened in 1994.
Inside the museum, rows of light oak cabinets contain shelves that hold the 85 brains, each suspended in a plexiglass container filled with clear liquid.
“They have been contributed by the body donation project,” said Cohan, of many of the specimens.
The brains are white, not the pink color they would be if they were alive and functioning, with blood flowing through them.
The transparent liquid in which they sit is formaldehyde, plus a little glycerin to keep them pliable, Cohan said. Clear plastic wrap – the kind you use in your kitchen – covers the tops of the plastic containers. Every so often, enough of the fluid inside the tubs evaporates that Cohan or another expert must top it off.
“They can exist forever,” said Cohan. “Preserved forever – but not functioning anymore.”
The 85 specimens are arranged by topic, not chronologically or by contributor’s name. In fact, the brains are wholly anonymous. No names of donors to the donation program are listed anywhere in the museum.
Many of the brains on display bear labels and diagrams and explanations, to illustrate what sort of process or phenomenon the dissection is designed to show.
Take Brain No. 117.
It has been dissected and labeled to show a simple concept: the lobes of the brain. Parts of the specimen have been colored red, blue, yellow and green.
“This is an easy one to recognize,” said Cohan, looking at the display. “When you look at that, you’re basically looking at the frontal exposure of the brain.”
“The red part is the frontal lobe. The blue is the parietal lobe, yellow is the temporal lobe, and green is the occipital lobe.”
Another display in the museum shows what Alzheimer’s disease does to a healthy brain.
“You get mystified, really, at how complex the brain is,” said Cohan. “It’s like taking apart the engine of the car. You can take apart the pieces, and know how they function.”
“But that’s a long way from understanding how the whole engine works.”
One man’s passion
This brain display began in the mind of one man, Dr. Harold Brody.
That name might mean nothing to you, but if your doctor or surgeon went to medical school in Buffalo, chances are good that it’s a name they will never forget.
“There are people all over Buffalo, physicians, who remember having Harold as their anatomy teacher,” said Dr. Lee R. Guterman, who studied under Brody as a medical student at UB in the 1980s. “Harold was the reason I became a neurosurgeon.”
Brody, a professor of anatomy who taught in UB’s medical school for decades, worked with generations of men and women in Western New York who are now doctors, surgeons and scientists, both here and all over the country. He died in 2008.
“My dad, above all, was an educator,” said David Brody, an attorney and one of Harold Brody’s two sons, who lives in the area. “He lived and breathed to educate. And he used everything as a lesson.”
Born in Cleveland in the 1920s, Harold Brody played sports and loved athletics as a boy. He was bright, and finished high school early enough to begin college on Long Island at 16. During World War II, he served overseas in the Army. He was assigned to work as a medic, and there got his first taste of what it meant to practice medicine.
One bit of Brody family lore has it that the European Theatre in World War II was the setting in which young Harold Brody first began performing surgeries.
“He swore it was true, so I believe it,” said David Brody, of his father’s account. “He went to the commanding officer of where they were; he was assisting in surgery. He said, ‘I can do this. Give me a chance.’ And the surgeon handed him ‘Gray’s Anatomy.’ He said, ‘Come back when you’re ready for a test.’ And he took two weeks to study, and then he came back and took a test. He did more … surgery in the war than he did afterward.”
Brody came back to the United States after his Army stint with a passion for medicine. He graduated from Western Reserve University with a biology degree, then earned a Ph.D. in anatomy at the University of Minnesota. He would later complete a medical degree at UB, while working there as a professor.
Brody began his UB career, which would span more than 40 years, in 1954.
There, teaching anatomy and other courses, Brody became a well-known faculty member.
“He taught all of the anatomy courses: gross anatomy, histology, neuroanatomy,” recalled David Brody.
When former students remember their classes with Brody, they often talk about the way he used to draw diagrams on the chalkboard.
“He would put a piece of chalk in each hand, and he would draw a perfectly symmetrical drawing of the brain, with both hands,” said Guterman.
“He loved the central nervous system. That was passed on to anyone who worked with him,” said Guterman, who now is a neurosurgeon specializing in stroke in the Buffalo area, and who holds the position of director of stroke for the Catholic health system in Western New York.
“This was an amazing guy.”
Brody won a Fulbright senior research scholarship in 1963, to study in Copenhagen. While in that city for eight months with his family, Brody saw a museum of brain specimens that inspired him to create his own collection, David Brody said.
“He saw the students looking at the stuff, and using it. Using it to figure out their assignments,” Brody said. “He thought, ‘This is something I need to bring back to Buffalo.’ It comes back to the idea of educator.
“In his heart of hearts, he was an educator.”
Museum in the garage
From Harold Brody’s mind, the museum moved to his garage.
Brody became so enraptured with the study of the brain – and his dissections of brains – that his work spilled over into other areas of his life. He was endlessly curious, his son recalled. He was always reading and studying, trying to perfect his techniques for dissecting and preserving brains.
Sometimes, Brody would bring his work home with him.
“We used to come in, and go in the garage, and there would be brains sitting in there, in plastic jugs – I guess they were glass,” recalled David Brody. “He would bring them home to study, to look over. They were in formaldyhyde.”
David Brody said his dad brought his sons to the lab with him, at times.
“One of my first jobs was cleaning slides,” Brody said, chuckling at the memory. “A penny a slide.”
Anyone who has ever dissected anything complex can tell you the work is careful, deliberate – and time-consuming.
“He spent part of his life on these tedious dissections,” said Hopkins, who is chairman of the Gates Vascular Institute and head of the Jacobs Institute in Buffalo, of Harold Brody.
Accumulating the core parts of a collection that would number 85 specimens represents, Hopkins said, a “life’s work.”
“It was his life’s work, to figure out a way to teach in ways that no one had ever really done before,” Hopkins said.
Harold Brody’s reason for building the collection for others to use and share along with him was simple, those who knew him said.
He believed in the quest for knowledge. That was who he was, they said.
“He was a great believer in basic science,” said David Brody. “You study it because it’s there – and something will come from that.”
Along the way, Harold Brody turned particular attention to the process of aging, and what changes that can cause in the brain, said Guterman.
“He loved his work,” said Guterman, who served as a teaching assistant under Brody. “He published some of the original papers on aging and the brain, related to the number of nerve cells you could count in the brain.”
“In a sense, that was Harold’s claim to fame as a scientist.”
Around the country, other museums and organizations which display collections of human brains, or other body parts or specimens, said there is real value in putting such items on display for others to see and learn from.
“Medical museums used to be extremely common. Every medical school used to have one,” said J. Nathan Bazzel, director of communications at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, where many brains are in a permanent collection, including those of Albert Einstein and Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President James Garfield.
“As technology changed, and as the way that we teach changed, these collections were increasingly seen as out of date – no longer relevant,” said Bazzel. “They were deaccessioned.”
But, Bazzel said, these sorts of collections have ongoing value – and visitors flock to them.
Bazzel said the Mutter gets about 133,000 visitors a year.
“Some people are interested in art, others are interested in natural science, others are interested in visiting other places,” Bazzel said. “But everyone has a vested interest in what it means to be human.”
Many of the dissections in the UB museum are Brody’s own, his son said. Others were done by students, many under Brody’s supervision, Hopkins said.
“It’s a very complex thing. It’s not like a bunch of telephone cables,” said Hopkins. “Just seeing some of the very tortuous pathways that some of these cables take – Harold tortured that all out.”
“He had just amazing amounts of patience,” Hopkins said. “He contributed so much to our own teaching programs.”
Brody said he believes his dad’s efforts will have lasting worth.
“Science has gotten so complex,” said Brody. “Doctors are getting taught more at the biochemical level, rather than at the physical level.”
“My dad was always a proponent of science at the physical level. Doctors had to do dissection. They had to learn where things were – and how the real thing differed from the books.”
The museum’s future
As for the future of the brain museum, most who know of it say they aren’t entirely sure what will happen to it when the medical campus in downtown Buffalo is completed.
Cohan, the curator, said that fate is still being decided.
Perhaps it will stay where it is, on Main Street. Perhaps it will move to new digs in the brand-new campus.
Hopkins is one of those who hopes to see the museum moved downtown, to where it can be a vital teaching tool used every single day.
“It’s actually a great loss that it lives out at the university,” Hopkins said. “The students get to see it, but all the trainees, the residents, the fellows, don’t get to see it. It should be part of the new medical campus.”
Guterman said he hopes that Brody’s legacy, the brain museum, will shine even brighter as time goes on, and medicine progresses.
“We really have a gem,” Guterman said. “And it’s a functional gem.”
The Museum of Neuroanatomy
Located in the Biomedical Education Building on the University at Buffalo’s South Campus at 3435 Main St. It is open by appointment. To contact the university faculty who take care of the museum, call the pathology and anatomical sciences department at 829-2846. The museum will be open for some scheduled tours this summer. For more details, see www.preservationbuffaloniagara.org