Colecções de cérebro | Brain collections

Banco Português de Cérebros, Hospital Santo António CHPorto | ©


Brief history of brain collecting and archiving

Among the various organs in our body, the brain is perhaps the most intricate and complex which functions and disease mechanisms have been object of intense curiosity since, at least, Alcmaeon, from the 5th century B.C. Alcmaeon was perhaps the first to perform anatomical dissections for learning and considered the brain as the seat of the mind and the soul (Crievellato 2007). Then several others such as Hippocrates, Herophilus, Erasistratus, Galen, Da Vinci and Vesalius contributed to the understanding of the human body with dissections, vivisections, written works and drawings.

The brain is a delicate and soft tissue liable to putrefaction and thus difficult to preserve [Gere 2005, Teacher 1900]. Therefore brain collecting only became possible with the 17th century Dutch anatomist, Ruysch, when brain preservation techniques became available. These specimens were usually housed in museums and private anatomical schools for educational purposes but, later in the 18th century, brain collecting bloomed with the short-lived phrenology ideas of Gall (Simpson 2005) and Broca (Pearce 2009) that focused on the concept of brain function localisation. Therefore, with these ideas, pathological brain collections began to flourish and in the 19th century, collections expanded their mere use for educational purposes and began to have a role in research and public awareness of health and disease issues.

With the two world wars, several brain collections were lost and only with Crichton-Browne brain collecting became systematic, with the used a scientific approach to study and treat mental and neurological illnesses, around 1871. Crichton-Browne collected pre and post-mortem information, creating the foundations of modern neuroscience and becoming a predecessor of modern brain banks (Finn 2012).

Around this time, Harvey Cushing, also began collecting whole and dissected brains with tumors, cysts and other lesions linked to the patient’s medical records, photographs and notes. All these events reveal that human brain specimens are valuable research and educational tools to get a real understanding of organ and structure variability, texture, weight and histologic composition of both healthy and unhealthy tissues. Brains for preservation were always scarce and were often collected without people’s consent, obtained from indigents and criminals sentenced to death, in the black market upon body snatching and also by trading giving rise to several social movements and implementation of policies.

Further reading

Kövari, E., Hof, P. R., & Bouras, C. (2011). The Geneva brain collection. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences1225 Suppl 1, E131–E146.

Iwaniuk AN. The importance of scientific collecting and natural history museums for comparative neuroanatomy. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2011 May;1225 Suppl 1:E1-19. 

Fobbs AJ Jr, Johnson JI. (2011) Brain collections at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2011 May;1225 Suppl 1:E20-9. 

Carlos, A. F., Poloni, T. E., Medici, V., Chikhladze, M., Guaita, A., & Ceroni, M. (2019). From brain collections to modern brain banks: A historical perspective. Alzheimer’s & dementia (New York, N. Y.)5, 52–60.

Thomas Erslev (2017) Collecting brains: from the Lab to the Archive, Master’s Thesis, Aarhus University for the degree of MA in the History of Ideas