Medical experts hope Digital Brain Library Project will help lead to answers about neurological diseases


By Karen Billing

A crowd at the Rancho Santa Fe Senior Center got a glimpse into the mind of Dr. Jacopo Annese on July 13 when he gave a talk about his work with the Digital Brain Library Project at UC San Diego’s The Brain Observatory.

Annese, director of the observatory and faculty member of the UC San Diego School of Medicine in radiology and biomedical imaging, spoke about how his observatory seeks to develop a library on the web of the human brains they have worked on. The library would include the donors’ medical and life history, as well as the results of a variety of tests conducted on the donors when they were alive.

Annese said he hopes the library will one day help to answer questions about major neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

The Brain Observatory was established in 2005; its research funded by the National Institute for Health and the National Science Foundation. The researchers at the observatory built the technology to see the entire human brain at the level of each individual cell, getting away from the limited focus of an MRI.

“MRI is one of the most important inventions in modern medicine, but it is a pretty bad digital camera resolution-wise,” said Annese.

He said the images the MRI takes cannot be zoomed in on closely enough and with the small snapshots of the entire brain, the pathologist could miss a diagnosis.

Annese likened the brain to an “impressionistic painting in 3-D” and just seeing a small snapshot of the entire piece is not enough to understand the whole picture.

With their lab, they sought to do things differently: Create a resource that could look at all of the brain at the same time, to see all of those small details that make up the “impressionistic painting” and see the picture as a whole.

Annese and the Brain Observatory’s most famous patient was an amnesiac named H.M.

In the 1950s, H.M. had epilepsy, with seizures starting at age 16. At the time, his surgeon believed a radical operation could solve the epilepsy. Because he knew epilepsy occurred in the middle of the brain, he did a dramatic surgery and removed the tissue he believed caused the seizures.

The epilepsy was controlled, but H.M, lost the ability to retain memories with a profound and selective case of amnesia. He generously became somewhat of a “professional patient” as he was a case studied by many doctors and more than 2,000 papers were written on his experience.

“He was such an exceptional patient because the only thing missing in his mind was his ability to make new memories,” said Annese. “Thanks to H.M., it was demonstrated that the hippocampus part of the brain is necessary to make memories.”

The hippocampus is also one of the main areas affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

When H.M. passed away in 2008, Annese participated in a dissection of H.M.’s brain,

Using equipment his team developed, they froze the brain, created thin slices that were dyed to create slides and imaged his brain with a high-resolution digital camera.

Annese’s brain dissection drew more than 400,000 viewers online and even inspired the theatrical play “2,401 Objects” — the number of brain slices collected from the dissection.

The Digital Brain Library has now collected tens of thousands of digital images, including some famous cases such as Renato Dulbecco, the former president of the Salk Institute and Nobel Prize winner who died earlier this year.

“I think it’s beautiful that a scientist can continue to contribute to science [even after he has died],” Annese noted.

In the library, they have everyone from artists to donors who embody the concept of successful aging, such as Annese’s “sharp and feisty” 92-year-old patient and donor Bette F.

“The brain is not separated from the person who owned it before,” Annese said. “We’re really looking for stories, that’s what differentiates us from brain banks.”

The information is going to be more useful when many cases are collected. He said it won’t be their lab that solves all the questions that need to be asked, but researchers around the world with access to the information in the future.

“Ideally, this is material that our grandchildren or grandchildren’s children will be viewing,” Annese said. “They will be able to start investigating for answers to their questions when the library grows.”

If interested in participating in the Digital Brain Library Project or support research at The Brain Observatory, visit