THIS WEEK’S STORY about research in Seattle on living brain tissue was nearly four years in the making.
I first heard about the project in 2015, while reporting on the new South Lake Union headquarters of the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Since its founding in 2003 by philanthropist and tech billionaire Paul Allen, the institute has been cranking out mountains of data and pioneering new techniques to help unravel the mystery of how the brain works. The initial focus was on mouse brains, which are small, readily available and far easier to study than the human brain.
But as one neuroscientist pointed out: You’ll never have a dinner party conversation with a mouse. Their brains might be similar to ours in some ways, but they are also profoundly different.
To get at those differences, the scientists had just started working with bits of live brain snipped out during surgery and donated by patients. Like investigative reporters who “follow the money,” I thought it would make a great story to follow the brain tissue from the OR to the lab.
But that turned out to be much trickier than I’d expected.
Nobody has brain surgery unless he’s facing a really bad situation, like a tumor or debilitating epilepsy. Surgeons and scientists were understandably reluctant to approach people at such a terrible time and ask whether they would allow a reporter and photographer in the room when their head was being cut open.
I kept asking, and kept being told no.
Early this year, the answer was, finally, yes.
Gary Williams, of Montesano, agreed to let photographer Mike Siegel and me observe his epilepsy surgery at Harborview. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my career.
I’ve observed several surgeries, from open-heart (I briefly feared I was going to faint) to cataract (I watched through the same microscope as the surgeon). But none carried the emotional punch of seeing Williams’ living brain, and watching it pulse with his heartbeat.
All of Williams’ memories, dreams and fears are contained in that 3-pound mass: his way of seeing, which made him such a talented tattoo artist; his knowledge of how to fell a tree and stalk a deer; the things he experienced during the first Gulf War.
Even the world’s brainiest experts have no idea how that tissue makes us who we are. The Allen Institute won’t solve the puzzle, but maybe — thanks to Williams and other generous patients like him — it will inch a little closer.