Earlier this week, I attended the 41st annual Society for Neuroscience (SfN) meeting in Washington D.C. to gather information for some future C&EN stories. I thought the American Chemical Society national meetings were enormous, but this one takes the cake.
At last count, the number of people attending SfN 2011 was more than 32,000—about double the number that usually go to ACS. Of course ACS meetings happen twice a year and SfN happens only once so it probably evens out, but the sheer size of the exhibit hall and some of the rooms for the oral sessions at this meeting were overwhelming.
I got tired just walking from one end of the exhibit hall to the other, but I wanted to see how SfN’s goodies and swag compared with those of a typical chemistry meeting, so I soldiered on. Vendors had the usual mix of candies, cloth bags, and pens at their booths. Pens don’t typically draw me in, but one vendor that was giving them out had the longest line in the joint.
That’s because DPSS Lasers was personalizing their pens on the spot. The firm, a laser supplier, of course, took down folks’ names and then etched them into the sides of their pens with a high-powered UV laser. One woman standing in line with me quipped that this was the longest line she’d stood in at the meeting, with the exception of the line at Starbucks. For those who’ve never been to the DC convention center, it contains only one of the infamous coffee stands, which always has a queue with at least a 20-minute wait.
Passing by animal enclosures, microscopes, and electrochemical setups for neuronal recording, I eventually reached the Elsevier booth farther down the hall. The vendors there were giving out pins and do-it-yourself brain caps. Simply pop the brain parts out of the paper sheet, cut and tape, and voila!—you’ve got a map of the parts of your brain that fits conveniently over your noggin. Just make sure you wear it with the occipital lobe in the back; it would be embarrassing otherwise.
But one of the most interesting booths I passed by was one from UC San Diego’s School of Medicine. The people manning that booth weren’t selling anything, the girl who I spoke with assured me. They were just demonstrating their new Digital Brain Library.
The display drew me in because on one side, it showed videos of brains on ice being sliced and photographed. On another screen, a three-dimensional brain representation was being rotated and opened up for an inside view.
The researchers at UC San Diego’s Brain Observatory work with patients throughout their lives, monitoring their medical and personal histories. After the patient has died, the scientists dissect their brains a slice at a time (slices as thin as a human hair) and make a map of its structure. The patients of course donate their brains to science ahead of time.
As the girl at the booth told me, some of the patients are healthy, and others have diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The goal of the library project, she said is to archive the brains of as many as 1,000 participants over the next decade.
Here’s some more information from the library’s pamphlet:
Traditional brain banks consist of anonymous specimens labeled with specific diseases. … It becomes impossible to reconstruct the complete anatomical or pathological picture of each brain in its entirety. … Thanks to unique technology developed by researchers at the UC San Diego Brain Observatory, it is now possible to transform the brain into an unabridged collection of detailed images that can be visualized at very high resolution, reassembled into 3-D models, and studied with virtual models.
What should a normal brain look like at different ages? What are the features that we all hav in common versus those that characterize each individual in health and disease? The Digital Brain Library will provide the answer to these questions.
One of the library’s original specimens is the brain of Henry G. Molaison, or patient H. M., who underwent brain surgery for epilepsy in the 1950s. The operation, unfortunately, gave him amnesia while alleviating the seizures. He’s been studied ever since. When he passed away in 2008, his brain was given to UC San Diego.
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