A HOLE IN the brain is not something you bounce back from quickly.
Ask Gary Williams.
The Montesano man who donated a chunk of his gray matter to science in April is slowly beginning to feel like himself again — with a few frustrating lapses. “I’ll start talking about something, then kind of lose track of it,” he says. “But I don’t feel so tired all the time.”
Williams has also been free of epileptic seizures since the operation at Harborview Medical Center. That was the goal when surgeons snipped out a marble-size piece of healthy brain tissue to get at, and remove, the diseased tissue below.
The diseased tissue was the target, the source of the haywire electrical signals that caused Williams’ body to convulse, and derailed his life. The healthy tissue was collateral damage. But Williams leveraged his personal ordeal for the greater good by allowing scientists at The Allen Institute for Brain Science to whisk the still-living bits of healthy brain to the lab for detailed study.
Researchers were able to keep some of Williams’ tissue alive and crackling with neural impulses for nearly two weeks, while they probed the electrical properties of individual cells and extracted nuclei for genetic analysis. The Allen Institute is one of the only places in the world to study living human brain tissue — thanks to people like Williams.
Since Williams’ operation, scientists have received brain samples from about 40 additional patients. “Since Gary’s contribution, the program as a whole has increased in scope,” says Allen Institute neuroscientist Ed Lein. “These donations are truly remarkable and inspiring. They are helping us understand the human brain for the benefit of society and medicine.”
The institute recently released its first set of data on brain cell connections, based on measurements of the way multiple neurons communicate in living human brain tissue. All of the data from the human tissue samples is freely available to researchers around the world.
Williams likes the idea that information from his brain is helping scientists understand the body’s most complex organ. But he’s mostly focused on recovery.
“Gary is actually doing extremely well,” says Dr. Jeffrey Ojemann, the UW Medicine and Seattle Children’s neurosurgeon who did the operation. It can take a year for memory to fully recover, but the absence of seizures bodes well for Williams’ long-term health. “He’s definitely on the right path.”
The hand tremors that forced Williams to give up his job as a tattoo artist have diminished — but not enough for him to pick up the needle again. Now that he’s more active, he likes to visit the shop where he used to work. And he’s looking forward to salmon fishing again, after several years when he wasn’t able to bait a hook or hold a pole.
“I’m really bored,” he admits. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to go back to work, but things are improving, so it’s possible.”