Brains on display in Peru

Luis Jaime Cisneros –
It powers everything we do, yet remains one of our biggest mysteries. But thanks to an unusual Peruvian museum dedicated entirely to the brain, visitors can get up close and personal with the most complex organ in the human body.
The “brain library” at the Santo Toribio de Mogrovejo Hospital in Lima has a massive collection of diseased and healthy brains, giving researchers and the general public a glimpse of what is going on inside our heads.
It is the only museum in Latin America, and one of the few in the world, with a large collection of brains that is open to the public.
The hospital, founded more than three centuries ago, has 2,912 brains collected over the years, nearly 300 of which are on display in a mind-opening exhibit.
“Touch a real skull,” the museum invites them on arrival, proffering a specimen so visitors can feel the cranial bone structure and imagine how it holds two square of intricately folded brain matter.
The brains of this operation, so to speak, is neuropathologist Diana Rivas, who is hovering over an icy steel table choosing scientifically interesting specimens to add to the museum’s collection.
“This is where we do the autopsies. I handle them myself,” she says.
She has just removed a particular specimen from a jar of formaldehyde. She examines the brain’s two hemispheres, which resemble giant walnuts, then carefully removes the thin layer of three membranes that hold them together, the meninges.
Rivas gives a lesson as she dissects. “A human brain weighs between 1.2 and 2.4 kilos, depending on the height and weight of the person, and on the sex,” she says.
The museum is divided into three parts: neuroanatomy, birth defects and brain damage caused by diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and the Zika virus.
“We show students what a healthy brain looks like, and then a sick brain, like this one with cysticercosis, which causes convulsions,” she says, pointing to a brain stained with marks left by invading tapeworms.
The parasites are present in pork and can also be transmitted when people fail to wash their hands properly, she explains.
Offering more food for thought, she points to another sick brain affected by arteriosclerosis —the result of eating too much fatty food, which clogs the arteries, including the ones feeding the brain.
Speaking of food, she warns that visitors need a strong stomach for some parts of the exhibit, such as a display on encephalocele.
“Around five per cent of students are afraid when they see it. Some faint, others vomit,” Rivas says matter-of-factly. — AFP

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