5 Horrific Things You Learn Preserving Brains for a Living
Mark Wilson was once a naive young neuroscientist when he stumbled upon one of the world's largest brain banks rotting away in the bowels of an Unnamed Hospital somewhere in the British Isles. Instead of immediately Frankensteining up his own personal army, as would have been prudent, he got to work restoring it. He soon found himself thrust into a wondrous Narnia of preserved brains, deadly ice and impossibly rare diseases. These are his adventures:
You are One Bad Question Away from Accidentally Owning a Room Full of Brains
One day, whilst doing all sorts of sinister science on some brain sections someone had given me for our research project, I foolishly asked, "Where does this tissue come from?" I should have known better. How many horror films start with a casual enquiry and someone digging around in stuff that should be left alone? Casually, my boss mentioned we had a whole bank of brain tissues at a different hospital.
In hindsight, the lightning striking right as they said that should been a tip-off.
Years ago it had been an old gym used for physical therapy on injured patients. But it was built over solid concrete without a sprung floor so anyone who used it hobbled their knees. The gym fell into disrepair, and thrifty government employees piled the thing high with brain samples.
Kind of puts you bitching about unwiped machines in perspective.
This place had been properly forgotten by the time I arrived, to the extent that just finding the keys was tricky; boxes of them were poured onto tables across many offices. When I got to the door I saw how pointless it was locking the place, as the door was almost falling apart. Some genius had put an internal door on the outside and left it unpainted against the unstoppable dampness of 20 winters in the British Isles. When I pulled the handle, it came out, and it took three years for the hospital authorities to put in a new one, which immediately fell out again since they didn't replace the door, but just screwed a new handle into the rotten frame. So I guess the whole world is lucky there were no supervillains wandering about with plans for some sort of brain-powered Cerebrocannon.
When I walked in, the smell hit me like a drunken dockworker whose sexuality and/or favorite sports team had been questioned. A sharp, decaying meaty smell with a fatty edge, coupled with an airborne level of formaldehyde so high it might as well have been teargas. I let it air out for a bit before entering to find that pigeons had made their homes in the upper reaches, brains had cracked out of their cases, and there were so many spiders you'd have thought it was Shelob's Lair.
"Oh, you're taller than the last guys."
Everyone knew it was there, unofficially, but even disposing of this level of mess was a major biohazard. I worked as a volunteer for years, but if I'd tried to work on the project officially there would've been miles of red tape to make sure it was "safe" and "efficient" and "not going to melt me from the inside out." Likely as not, they'd have just burned the lot of it to avoid the hassle. The moral of this story: never, ever ask anything.
Disembodied Brains are Extremely Dangerous
The '50s sci-fi movies were right: Disembodied brains are deadly. When I got to the brain bank, I found it hadn't been organized in any systematic way, and there'd been a bunch of floods. The old containers they used for 50 years weren't airtight. So they'd just wrapped the cases in cellophane. Well, a lot of the fluid just sort of leaked out, pooled on the floor and evaporated, leaving the whole place coated in a thin film of brains. There was only one fan in the building, and it hadn't worked since a British flag flew over New Delhi. Plus it was near the ceiling and formaldehyde is heavier than air, so it wouldn't have worked anyway. Breathing in that room was enough to strip the liquid out of your throat in 10 minutes.
"It's dryer than Margret Thatcher on Valentine's Day in there."
And then there's friggin' lysate. You know how infected blood is a high-risk substance? Even if you're not a doctor, you should have retained at least that much from the Resident Evil series. Well, the saving grace of blood is its viscosity. It puddles, and if you don't, like, lick it up or fall on it there's not many ways it can hurt you, because it's basically confined to wherever it is. Now lysate is from frozen tissue that isn't chemically fixed. So when you thaw it, the ice crystals go everywhere and then thaw into liquid on contact. Because it hasn't been treated, the donor's HIV or hepatitis or pneumococcus or whatever horrifying shit killed them all gets mixed together into a wet film that now coats your world. And did I mention rare, extinct diseases? Because this lab is full of them.
"Good news: We've just discovered hepatitis Q. Bad news: It's in you."
The frozen brains were kept in giant specialty -80 degrees Celsius freezers, familiar to almost every biologist in the world. And as every biologist in the world knows, they break way more often than you'd like. Inevitably, a freezer went out, and it was clean-up time. This involved pulling out the frozen trays from the freezer and sealing the tissue before it unfroze. Touching the metal shelves freezes your fingers to it in about five seconds, with full frostbite taking less than a minute. Now with latex gloves, I had just a few seconds before the cold penetrated the gloves and freeze-burnt my hands. (At that extreme of temperature your body can't tell between hot and cold, so it felt like fire. Except flesh rarely sticks to fire.) Of course, the possibly-diseased lysate I mentioned liquidized immediately and ran down my arms and body, even though the safety coat. It took two full days to clear the whole thing. I stank like death on the way home, the gases and large fat-and-protein-derived molecules adhere to almost anything with great stubbornness due to their charge, and anyone who's been around death knows the distinct odor profile it leaves. The Distinct Odor Profile of Death.
Dibs on the killer goth album title.
The Equipment Will Maim the Crap Out of You
We had a collection of ice axes and chisels in the brain bank, and not because of the very reasonable fear of disembodied ghost-zombies. Those giant freezers are so expensive to buy and run that everyone fills them to absolute capacity when they're only meant to be at 50 percent; so they ice up, and the ice is too hard to crack with conventional tools. And you can't heat the whole thing up a little bit, otherwise you end up with cooked brains, which is generally frowned upon outside of an episode of Hannibal.
"Actually, I only eat free range and fresh."
Most donated brains are cut for slides. These sections are between 1 - 50um (one um is one millionth of a meter, and thinner than almost any cell), so you wind up with a lot of samples. Now you can't cut something that thin without a blade so sharp it makes a scalpel's edge look like the Matterhorn. Traditional gloves provide no protection at all, and if you nick a finger it often goes to the bone. The cut is so fine you don't immediately feel it. It's not uncommon to have to point out to the person cutting that their glove is filling up with blood. Don't worry though: the pain will get there on his sweet time, and he'll bring a shitload of his drunkest friends to help out.
Almost everyone cuts themselves. You don't even notice until a few minutes later when there's blood in a neat line mirroring the movement of your hands. In the old days people had a single huge blade that you screwed in place, and you'd use it until it got blunt, and then move it along. But this thing was so heavy, people would sometimes find the blade embedded halfway through their finger bone. It takes months to heal. Your body doesn't seem to like healing ultrafine cuts.
Kind of puts your bitching about paper cuts in perspective.
We also have special knives for cutting up brains. Yes, brain knives are a thing. They aren't dissimilar to serrated cooking knives, but are about a foot long and come in sets. Most professional neuropathologists (who have a budget) use chainmail gloves under their normal latex ones to avoid taking a finger off. So to answer your next question: Yes, that's probably who's keeping that weird sword-and-armor store you find at every mall in business.
It is Way Grosser Than You Think (Even if You Think It's Pretty Gross)
"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.
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?
"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.
Dead Brains are an Impossibly Valuable (and Disappearing) Resource
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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
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