i visit a brain bank

Much of my research comes via anatomy books and the internet. I make the occasional trip (2 weeks ago in fact) to the Science Center. And I will admit to appreciating the Body World exhibit (as well as Gunther von Hagen’s dissection videos).  I have toured a number of labs, including Barrow’s some years ago. This week I visit a brain bank with new work in mind.

Driving to Sun City where Banner Sun Health Research Institute is located, I think about Kathleen Bartolomei (UrbanLab LLC) who connects me to Maribeth Gallagher (Hospice of the Valley), who directs me to Jan Dougherty (Special Projects Consultant at Banner Alzheimer’s Institute), whom introduces me to Dr. Thomas Beach and his research center -so that I might better appreciate the human brain in full, in part, and under the microscope.

I could title this post No Woman is an Island.

I arrive and meet Geidy, a Neuroanatomist. She will take me through the facility until Dr. Beach, who is in a meeting, becomes available.

She points out workstations each with a dry ice pad and scale, among other things.

Lab workstations

This particular lab is unique in that it requires rapid autopsy (within 3-hours postmortem) to ensure the highest quality tissue. Geidy explains, there is always an on call team to do the work. I assume donors have to live in the area. They do and she emphasizes the need for controlled brains, including enrolling a potential donor and meeting with them. She clarifies the work here is to study the aging process.

A good idea, I think to myself, because we are living longer.

The first area we enter includes a high-powered microscope and large computer screen. I don’t photograph the space because we plan to return after walking the lab. We never do come back.

Geidy announces we’ll make stops in various rooms on our way to the morgue. I’ve avoided morgues my whole life, is all that comes to mind.

I believe she identifies these refrigerators as -80°C lab freezers, which I understand now are ultra-low freezers.

Freezers

We walk through several rooms with rows and rows of tissue samples.

Brain tissue samples

Heart tissue samples

Organ tissue storage

With over 3000 people enrolled as donors, this lab has performed 1400 autopsies since 1987.

We make our way to the morgue.

I ask a particular question and Geidy says … because I am a Scientist, I would not say that. What I will say is…etc. I am aware of her ability for careful listening and mindful answering. Naturally I’m compelled to try to do the same.

Before she brings brain tissue out for me to see, she ends a part of our conversation by noting she believes they are finding better ways of diagnosing insults to the brain.

The brain appears so delicate and so beautiful. She notes pathology in the sample she holds. We talk about gray (not really gray) and white matter. 

Coronal section of the brain

When I later show my husband these 2 photos, he reacts by saying it looks like highly conductive material. Yes it is. I pose a (philosophical) question but he has no response for me.

Cerebellum

Taken aback by the cerebellum (the little brain), I know my renderings are on point.

Below is the left hemisphere of the brain. Knowing my artwork will include the normal brain and the brain with dementia, I ask Do you have diseased tissue samples?  No, she does not.

External structure – left hemisphere of the brain

Geidy points out the Corpus Callosum and notes the area is where the 2 hemispheres connect (center flat horizontal area in image below). I don’t say it out loud but I recall corpus callosum is Latin for tough body.

Midsaggital Plane – left hemisphere of the brain

Surprised that she brings out a heart (below), I see it is unusually large with (too much) visible fat. This prompts a conversation about age, aging, weight gain and weight loss.

Heart

As we exit the morgue I photograph a curtain rack sitting in the hallway. It has an image of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. I recall the da Vinci book my father gives me that is currently sitting on my drawing table at the Tempe Center for the Arts. Finding the particular visual here represents for me a nod to timing and all that is right.

Walking back down the hallway, I hope to return to the area where the microscope sets up. I am eager to look at neurohistology. We meet Dr. Beach at the entrance to his lab and introductions take place. I also say goodbye to Geidi and thank her. She tells me she’ll go to the exhibit and she’ll invite her colleagues. It’s the sort of thing they’d all enjoy.

Dr. Beach and I have a very different interaction. He is curious to know what I am doing. I share a few drawings with him and one of his colleagues. I tell him about the artist residency and my father. He shares books and images with me. He explains particulars about dementia and Alzheimer’s. We look over some scans I bring along and he talks anatomy (CAT scan) and chemistry (PET scan). He tells me about glucose and synaptic connection.

We discuss the hippocampus and at one point he explains it is involved in only a small part of dementia (Alzheimer’s). He states dementia is a global loss of thinking. It’s not just about memory, it is about language (input and output), it is about losing ones understanding of abstraction…losing metaphor…and losing mathematics. He emphasizes…the whole of the cerebral cortex…is affected.

I ask about people who specifically use their intellect. I realize quickly everyone uses their intellect but I want to understand how an avid reader and thinker might be affected by dementia.  How (I really want to say why) does it take them (anyone)? Perhaps the root of my question is more emotional than logical. His general response is simple – the more one does with their brain (their mind) the longer it will take for it (the disease) to bring them down (I paraphrase).

Can you see a cure happening in your life time? He pauses before answering and I imagine it is because he is a scientist and wants to answer in a factual way. I suppose he can’t know the duration of his life. His response is firm – Yes. We will find a cure.

In your life time?  He may have answered – within 20 years – and then maybe changed his answer to 10 years. I can’t say for sure. I am listening intently though I forget to write this detail.

I never make it to the microscope to look at histology. It’s after lunch now and we’re both ready for a break. He extends an invitation for me to observe an autopsy. My name would  be put on a call list. I don’t jump at the opportunity. I’m good here and now.

As I make the drive home, I know the brain to be a most extraordinary organ. It is not like a computer. It is not a machine. It is a living thing – enfolding life.

In my artist statement I write about my interest in both the physical body and the subtle body. Perhaps I should use the words gross (what is visible to the eye) and subtle (what is not visible to the eye). Right in this moment I understand the brain to be the best example of this.

Thank you to everyone who helped direct me to the Banner Sun Health Research Center. Thank you Geidy Serrano for the tour. And thank you Dr. Thomas Beach (Senior Scientist and Lab Head) for the opportunity to meet with you.


draw: the art of curiosity and innovation is now open and continues through Sept 1, 2018. I am 1of 3 Artists-in-Residence through Aug 3, 2018. You can find me there every Tuesday, and depending on the week, either Thursday or Saturday.
More info → Gallery at TCA