Tuesday, August 24, 2010

500 brains in glass jars

Hard to imagine that more than five hundred brains--cancerous brains, floating in formaldehyde and stored in glass jars, no less--could remain hidden in "various crannies" of Yale's medical school as well as the "basement of the medical school’s dorms" for over seventy years, but Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D.'s article in today's New York Times states that this is the case. And even better, "after a colossal effort to clean and organize the material", the brains are now in a room designed solely for them!

The brains were collected by Dr. Harvey Cushing, a Yale professor and one of America’s first neurosurgeons. The article quotes Michael Bliss, a medical historian, who writes this of Cushing:
“Cushing became the first surgeon in history who could open what he referred to as ‘the closed box’ of the skull of living patients with a reasonable certainty that his operations would do more good than harm.”

Before Cushing's time, doctors relied on their patients for information that would lead to the site of a brain tumor. Cushing developed a test based on vision--various changes in vision caused by different tumors--to help identify tumor location. Though doctors now use MRIs to locate tumors, the article notes that "comparatively little progress has been made since Dr. Cushing’s time in actually prolonging life in brain-cancer patients." Dr. Dennis Spencer, the chairman of neurosurgery at Yale and the Harvey and Kate Cushing professor of neurosurgery, notes:
Everything we’ve done in the last 100 years has changed the progress for malignant brain tumors very little, extending life maybe eight months to two years.

To read the complete article and see a picture of the brain jars, see Inside Neurosurgery’s Rise by Randi Hutter Epstein, M.D.

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