How to Handle a Brain
Yesterday was certainly an interesting day. I only had one class, Bioscience, but it was an incredible experience nonetheless. I should warn any of you that are a little squeamish; you might want to skip over this one.
I started out on Tuesday night not feeling all too well and contemplating not attending the practical class the next day, but only due to a quiz at the end of the class worth a mere 3% (I know it’s not much but every mark is a good mark, right?) I decided it would be best for me to attend. It turned out to be the right decision for sure.
I got to Uni around eight in the morning, but my class wasn’t until 12:00, so I spent the morning studying my lecture material, which was discussing cell structures and intracellular mechanics, I ended up writing out about 12 pages of notes, which for me is a lot. Anyway, I crammed as much in as I could before class, then headed over to the labs. When we finally got in, there was a slightly more serious atmosphere in the lab than usual, but I thought nothing of it. I grabbed my books and a pen from my bag and headed to my bench. My seat is up the back of the lab and I noted an odor I had not smelt before, it was subtle, but again thought nothing of it, probably just some chemical residue or crazy experiment left over from the last class to use the lab. The class settled and we all listened intently on what we were to be studying today. We had been studying the nervous system in the lecture previous so I figured we’d be looking at some Nerve cells and Axons under the microscope, maybe even a few Schwann cells but I got an even better surprise.
The demonstrators would be dissecting a lamb’s brain for us in small groups throughout the practical session and any one wanting to observe was free to join in. I was quite excited to be involved in the dissection, after all, who doesn’t want to know what makes your body work? But there was more… we were told of an optional exercise, that only the strongest of stomach should attempt. This statement certainly peaked my interest, what could be worse than dissecting an actual lambs brain. Well… I was certainly not prepared for the answer, at least not after only 4 weeks of study. Behind me in the fume cupboard, was an actual Human Brain, fully intact with the eyes and spinal chord still attached.
No way! I have the opportunity to see a real human brain, fully intact! But then it got even better, they not only had an intact brain for us to look at, they also had a sagittal section of a real human head and upper torso. Well this just keeps getting better I thought. I couldn’t wait to check them out, and jumped up as soon as I was offered to take a look. We were in a group of about 15 and the demonstrators uncovered the specimens and there it was, a real human brain. It was a surreal feeling for sure, especially when the demonstrator lifted it up to show us the different features. It still had the Meninges intact, but opened to expose the brain underneath. All of it was completely intact, as if someone had peeled the rest of the body off from around it. We were shown the major structures including the cerebrum, through to the brain stem and spinal cord, all the way through to the Sacral Nerve Roots. Even the eyes and optic nerve were still intact.
After we had a thorough introduction to the brain, we moved on to the cross section of the head and torso. Again it was fully intact, including the skull, brain, vertebrae, right through to the heart and lungs. Again it was a surreal feeling, that’s what it looks like inside of me, what everyone looks like on the inside. It was absolutely fascinating. The demonstrator went on to show us the ventricles of the brain, as well as the pituitary gland, before showing us how the spinal chord and other structures changed as they defended the body. I remember thinking how the Esophagus is a lot further back than we think (it basically follows the vertebrae). The demonstrator finished her demo, and a few students went back to their bench, but I stuck around to check out the still uncovered brain in a bit more detail. It was so fascinating, I remember thinking, “How can that control everything we do?”. Up close it was a lot smaller than I thought it would be, we get the impression that the brain basically fills the head but there’s a lot of other “junk” in between it and the outside world. I was absolutely thrilled at this point, it’s one thing to see a picture of a brain in a textbook, but it’s another altogether to see one for real, sitting in front of you.
Just when I thought it was all over, the demonstrator came up to me and asked if I wanted to touch it. I couldn’t believe it! Of course I do! Who would pass up such an opportunity? I quickly threw on some gloves and dove right in, and it was…. weird. It was a bit heavier than I thought it would be, it was also pretty solid, which I guess is because of the preservation process, but it was even more surreal than seeing it, it was a very profound sort of feeling. Whilst holding this brain my own brain decided to have one of those random deep philosophical moments. I suddenly thought “I’m holding essentially an entire person in my hands.” not in a physical sense of course. It was a sudden realisation that I was holding the very definition of a person, their whole life, all their experiences, everything they once knew, every memory, every emotion they had experienced… was now in my hands. I was suddenly struck with an immense feeling of respect for this unknown person. I have no idea who they were, how old they were, or even what sex they were, but I was grateful they donated their body for science, and so that us students could really appreciate the real human body and not just a bunch of diagrams in a text book.
I spent a few minutes examining the brain and the spinal chord, paying particular attention to the L5-S1 and L4-5 nerve roots, which are a source of trouble for me, with both levels suffering degenerated discs, I could now see how fragile they were, they’re just little pieces of string really. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome so I gently put the specimen back down and removed my gloves and headed back to my bench where we continued working through some activities relating to neuron and axons. Shortly after the demonstrator came by and we spent a while discussing various conditions that affect the brain, as well as the philosophical aspects of “locked-in” syndrome.
The rest of the day was pretty uneventful but I will certainly never forget the day I got to not only see a human brain and a cross-section of the human head & torso, but got to physically touch another persons brain.