As part of our continuing coverage of the controversy that has erupted over Luke Dittrich’s recently released Patient H.M., we bring to your attention a just released review of the book in Science. In her review, Laura Stark provides a welcome perspective on Dittrich’s work, especially in relation to his portrayal of Suzanne Corkin. As Stark writes,
It seems inevitable that the book will be compared to the patient biography The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. But, while Dittrich is an exceptional writer, he focuses his talents in the last half of his book on a takedown of rival author Suzanne Corkin, missing opportunities to turn his own family story into one of more universal scope….
Dittrich only reveals at the end that Corkin was writing her own book on H.M., which recasts his story up to that point in a new light. It helps make sense of his eagerness to see her actions as personal slights, character flaws, and bad science rather than symptoms of broken systems. It is a pity, because his sense of personal grievance narrows him into a story about a uniquely menacing scientist rather than a universal story of the legal and institutional ties that bind even well-intentioned people.
The review is out from behind Science‘s paywall and can be read in full here.
Neuroskeptic, part of Discover Magazine’s series of blogs, recently posted a review of a new book, Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets. The book, written by Luke Dittrich who is himself the grandson of H.M.’s neurosurgeon, tells the story of the infamous case study of the patient now known to be Henry Molaison.
In the review Neuroskeptic focuses on three troubling aspects of H.M.’s story as discussed in the book. First, the psychosurgery performed on H.M. to address his epilepsy had no medical basis. Second, H.M.’s life was not nearly as sedate and content as it often portrayed and he threatened suicide at various points in time. Finally, the ethics of Suzanne Corkin’s longterm study of H.M. is thrown into doubt as, following the death of his parents, H.M. lacked a legal conservator to speak to his interests. This meant that H.M. himself provided consent for many of Corkin’s studies, though whether this can be understood as informed consent is doubtful. Moreover, the cousin eventually appointed conservator for H.M., it turns out, was not related to H.M. at all and simply provided blanket consent for Corkin’s tests of H.M.
Read Neuroskeptic’s full review online here.
The Brain Observatory at the University of California San Diego, directed by Jacopo Annese, has made available as part of its Digital Brain Library an atlas of H.M.’s brain. H.M., now known to be Henry Molaison, is one of the best known case studies in memory research. Molaison experienced profound amnesia following a bilateral medial temporal lobectomy and was subsequently studied for more than 50 years. Following his death in 2008, Molaison’s brain was donated to science and sectioned into more than 2400 slices (right), a procedure that was aired live on the web (see a previous AHP post on this process here). As described on the site,
In December 2009, Annese and his team at The Brain Observatory dissected H.M.’s brain into 2,401 thin tissue slices that have been preserved cryogenically in serial order. The collection was meant to support the histological examination of the brain and to better understand the neurological basis of human memory function. While the brain was being sliced, we collected an unabridged series of digital images of the surface of the block each corresponding to individual tissue sections. These images were archived and used to create a 3-D model of the whole brain. A regular series of sections through the brain was stained and digitized at a resolution of 0.37 microns per pixel to reveal cellular-level features. These virtual sections, a matching series of anatomically delineated images, and data from postmortem MRI of the specimen were combined into an atlas of patient H.M.’s brain.
The atlas was conceived as a web-accessible resource to support collaboration and retrospective studies.
Project HM can be explored in full here.
For anyone in the Toronto area, an upcoming talk at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) may be of interest. On October 9th, at 6pm, Dr. Suzanne Corkin will be speaking on her recent book, Permanent Present Tense: The Unforgettable Life of the Amnesic Patient, HM. Corkin spent decades studying the patient popularly known as H.M., who was revealed to be Henry Molaison after his death in 2008. (See AHP’s previous post on the fate of H.M.’s brain here.) Research with H.M., who was unable to form longterm memories following extensive brain surgery for epilepsy, was central to psychological work on how longterm memories are formed.
The event – sponsored by the Faculty of Health, York University, the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest, and the Department of Psychology, University of Toronto – is free to attend but pre-registration is required. The Permanent Present Tense lecture is described as follows,
Dr. Suzanne Corkin is an esteemed memory expert and Professor Emerita of Neuroscience in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT (Cambridge, MA). Dr. Corkin is best known for her work with one of the most famous cases in medical history, the amnesic patient Henry Gustave Molaison. In her lecture, Dr. Corkin will speak about their nearly 50-year research partnership, which taught us much of what we know today about memory. Her lecture will be followed by a signing of her recent book, Permanent Present Tense, which documents the incredible story of H.M. and his groundbreaking contributions to the science of memory.
History is currently streaming live over the internet via The Brain Observatory in San Diego, CA. The brain of H.M. (Henry Molaison), one of psychology’s most famous amnesic patients, has been frozen to -40C and is being sectioned over a 30 hour period lasting into tomorrow (December 4, 2009). You can watch the procedure live via their website. According to The Brain Observatory:
The procedure will mark the completion of Phase 1 of the project which will include ex vivo MR-imaging, blockface imaging, tissue slicing and cryogenic storage of all histological sections.
H.M. passed away just over 1 year ago.
AHP thanks Kathleen W. Smith at York University for bringing this story to our attention.