5 Horrific Things You Learn Preserving Brains for a Living

#2. It is Way Grosser Than You Think (Even if You Think It's Pretty Gross)

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"Duck Soup" is something I still remember with horror. When you take a brain out, it has no integrity or shape, because we are all just sentient jelly piloting a bone-mech. Put a brain in a bowl, it takes the shape of a bowl. So to chemically fix it, we put it in formaldehyde with some salts, and you leave it there for a couple months. Well, a lot of these brains just got stuck in preservative and filed away for years. And that's how two of my pathologists got to a brain that had been filed away 50 years ago. All I heard from the two veteran pathology technicians who opened it were screams, and then they fled past me as if the grim specter of death was chasing them (which, technically, it was). So I walked over: the smell was like a sledgehammer, and I was pretty resistant at this point. When I finally got close, I found that the original pathologist had put the brain into water instead of formaldehyde when they sealed it. So it had sat there, sealed and stewing away for half a century to become an olfactory WMD primed to detonate two generations later.

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Seriously, this is how Romero movies get started.

Brains are fatty, so they smell even worse than most tissue. I sealed it back up, enclosed it in three layers of biohazard containment, and put it in a safe for disposal to be incinerated. A year later, the tiniest drop got through a crack and hit the floor like the black goo from Prometheus. A medical student with me vomited instantly from the smell. Instantly. Then she ran away. I get goosebumps just remembering it. It was truly revolting. Prometheus was just such a wasted opportunity, you know?

20th Century Fox
"Be careful; everything is trying to hurt us. The aliens, the robot, the script. Everything."

Oh, and the fetid half-century brain rot smoothie was pretty bad, too.

#1. Dead Brains are an Impossibly Valuable (and Disappearing) Resource

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It sounds like this facility was the filthiest junkyard of medical science, but make no mistake: The brain bank was one of the greatest scientific resources on Earth. If this were physics it would be CERN. At the time it was one of the largest brain banks anywhere. It had at least 12 million slides pre-stained, hundreds of thousands of lots ... my god, the scale of it.

Every scientist I ever took in there had the same reaction: their jaws just dropped. It's thousands of lifetimes of research material. And yet people fear it. Over the years many people came and went, from security, safety departments, ethics groups, managers, students, technicians and reporters. Every single one fell into groups of loving it or hating it. Normally this isn't a problem; but when managers hate it, simply because they are squeamish about having human tissue and lots of chemicals well out of their experience, then they try to destroy it. It's like the old saying goes: We fear what we do not understand, and upper management doesn't understand a lot of things.

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"We're not wasting another cent on this astrology bullshit. You shut that cancer studies department down!"

My biggest problem over the years was fending off MBA types, who simply wanted it gone because dealing with it all properly was a damn hassle from their point of view. (I was happy with my ice picks and lysate.) Eventually they won, and it got shut for a couple of years. Over 100,000 samples were lost. It's a crime against science when you consider the lack of banked brains across the world is stalling research into Autism, concussions, and a wide range of child developmental disabilities.

And the issue isn't acquiring brains with rare diseases. Many people with illnesses are very good at saying they'd like to donate, because people are awesome. But healthy people often don't think to donate their brains, because who would care? Well, every scientist. Because without control brains, it's impossible to tell just what's abnormal about the sick ones. Lack of control brains is a major problem for researchers worldwide.

Robert Byron/Hemera/Getty Images
"He would use "YOLO" and "bae" unironically."

And, hey, don't just sign up to donate your brain. Get all those organs on the table. Think of it this way: your liver could get a whole new lifetime of drinking after you get savaged by that brown bear you drunkenly challenged to a fight.

Glenn Nagel/iStock/Getty Images
"I skipped eating that so others could live. Don't be a dick."

Mark Wilson is a pseudonym, and he has a blog War, Politics and Elephants.

Robert Evans is head of Cracked's personal experience article department, and you can find more of his stuff right here.

Related Reading: Up for an inside look at what it's like fighting drug cartels? Click right here. If you'd rather hear about the drug war from the perspective of a bunch of street-level dealers, we talked to those guys, too. Cracked also gave this doctor a chance to write out the things he can't say to your face. And if you've got a story to share with Cracked, we can be reached here.

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