A Most Famous Brain

Henry Gustav Molaison (who became famous as ‘HM‘ in neuroscience textbooks) was born on February 26, 1926. After a bicycle accident at the age of 7 he suffered from debilitating epilepsy and in 1953 he underwent neuron surgery in an attempt to contain seizures.

Doctors localised HM’s epilepsy in his medio-temporal lobes and removed a large part of the hippocampus in both hemispheres. At the time they had no idea of how crucial these areas are for the normal functioning of the human brain…

Soon after the operation it became clear that something was wrong. HM suffered from severe anterograde amnesia: he was otherwise normal but no longer able to commit events to memory. He would not remember the newspaper he had just read or the people he met a few minutes ago, he was stuck in the present.

For the rest of his life HM was studied intensively, revolutionising the understanding of human memory. He provided broad evidence for the rejection of old theories and the formation of new theories on human memory and the underlying neural structures.

When HM died in 2008, neuroscientists were provided with the most extensively studied brain in history. This anatomical treasure was entrusted to Dr. Jacopo Annese in the University of California, San Diego, who acquired 2041 slices of HM’s brain and made them available to study.

Dr. Annese is the founder of the Brain Observatory, an ambitious project which aims to collect as much information as possible on brain donors, in the hope that one day we will be able to track the connection between the brain structure and our life history.

For more information check out the HM project on the brain observatory website, or listen to Dr. Annese talk at the Wellcome Collection recorded for  BBC4 All In The Mind series (which inspired this comic!).

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