Dr Jacopo Annese

Dr Jacopo Annese is a Neuroscientist and Director of The Brain Observatory at the University of California, San Diego, and the man behind the dissection of Patient HM's brain that kickstarted this project.  Dr Annese was a key collaborator on 2401 Objects. Below, Analogue and Dr Annese share their stories of collaboration.

Analogue on Dr Jacopo Annese

Our paths first crossed with Dr Jacopo Annese’s when we found ourselves part of a community of 400,000 viewers watching the live brain dissection of the recently deceased Henry Molaison on 2 December 2009 (click here to watch archive footage). At this stage, we were just one of many anonymous viewers watching this Italian neuro-anatomist’s hands hard at work delicately brushing the slices of micro-thin brain slices from the blade and placing them onto awaiting glass slides, while the microtome reset itself for the next shaving.

Intrigued by this remarkable event and the stories behind it, we decided we wanted to know more about these two men – the man whose brain would soon become 2401 objects and the neuroscientist behind the world’s first live brain dissection

Before contacting Jacopo, we had a very particular perspective on him based, almost entirely on an article written in Esquire magazine. Introducing Jacopo by saying he ‘usually drives a Porsche…’, the article encouraged us to draw comparisons between this modern man of science with Dr William Scoville, the surgeon who created the world’s most famous neuroscientific patient by removing almost all of Henry’s hippocampus in 1953 – and a driver of fast cars.  Little did we know he would become such a strong influence on the work.

We initially reached out to Jacopo with a telephone call. When you have watched something as extraordinary as a live brain dissection and taken on board the sheer gravity of the cutting edge science being performed at The Brain Observatory, it feels bizarre when you can just pick up a phone and speak to the doctor behind it. But that’s what we did.

Perhaps it was the relationships Jacopo has cultivated with actors in Los Angeles (people wishing to donate their brains to science after they die and whom, therefore, he is keen to meet in life) or the appeal of an opportunity to explain his work in human and artistic terms, but he was immediately interested in the project and keen to be involved, much to our delight.  I am not sure we had specific expectations we did not anticipate being able to speak to him directly let alone have him be interested in the project! – but soon it became clear that Dr Jacopo Annese would be more than simply an advisor on this project. 

Here is a man on the cutting edge of science, who believes that in order to learn more about the brain and where it sits within our neuroscientific understanding of cognitive human behaviour, disease and memory among other things, we need something in addition to the biomedical evidence to find answers.   We need to know the person in life whose brain is then donated in death.  Dr Annese had already revealed himself to be more than just a neuro-anatomist - in his own words, he described himself as a storyteller, but the more we learnt about him the more this became apparent. Dr Annese regularly meets his patients who wish to donate their brains for research after they die. Not in the lab but for dinner!    

The series of conversations with Jacopo that followed enabled us to build a more detailed understanding of where the science meets the man in the story of Henry Molaison. The operation in 1953; the geography of the brain in terms of memory; the shifts in scientific exploration that has found the neuroscience community putting emphasis on meeting or observing human behaviour in life as well as studying brains in buckets or cells on a slides; the discoveries made thanks to this experimental surgery in 1953; the unknowns; the anomalies; and the hopes for the future.  

We also asked him to tell us how he came to cross paths with Henry Molaison.  We heard about the time they met in life, and in particular we learnt about the journey he took from the east to the west coast of the US with Henry’s brain on the seat next to him, prior to the live dissection.

Our exchanges inspired us to develop and dedicate an entire strand within the show to explore Dr Jacopo Annese's role in the story of Patient HM.  We sat his strand within the seminal flight from Connecticut to San Diego in the 48 hours after Henry died because we realised that this journey marked the dividing line between what we learnt about memory in Henry’s life and what we hope to learn in his death.

Through our conversations with Jacopo, we were able to create a map of what we needed according to the dramaturgy of the show.  We asked Jacopo to record himself talking about his work and what he could remember recalling his journey sat next to Henry Molaison’s brain. This process was enormously instrumental in the writing of the script – we extracted his words and edited them into the mouth of an actor playing Jacopo, integrating the science into our storytelling to make it as accessible as possible for our audience.

As the show developed, we wanted to find a way of bringing Jacopo in contact with the audience in the theatre. The introduction and conclusion of the shows features the real voice of Jacopo apologising for his absence and introducing the actor who was representing him for the evening.  To create this, we produced a more specific prompt script for Jacopo to record, which we edited to bookend the show. Consequently Jacopo came to be a very real presence in the show, affording our audiences the opportunity to 'meet' him (in the way we initially had; as a mediated voice over the telephone). 

Beyond the creation of the show, we have continued our relationship with Jacopo Annese. He has - through the medium of Skype - taken part in several arts/science engagement events surrounding the 2011 and 2012 tours of the show - including at Edinburgh University and the Drum Theatre Plymouth. Audiences have been able to ask direct questions of the man who has been so central to our production, and to the wider story of Henry Molaison and his brain.

Much like his work with Patient HM, we hope this is just the beginning of what can emerge from such a fascinating collaboration.

Dr Jacopo Annese on Analogue

First published on the Brain Observatory website

What happens to the brains of an audience while they are experiencing a performance on stage? What if the actors could delicately weave new patterns in the brains of their audience to make them feel and remember the emotions that the characters in a play wish to convey? In fact, this is very likely what happens during a theater performance; and if the play is about a brain, then the effect is even more dramatic. ‘2,401 Objects’ is not a play about a brain; it tells the story of a very special brain.

When I dissected the brain of patient H.M. I had my own audience; through the glittering lenses of two video cameras a flow of passers-by viewed the procedure on their computer screens. It was a very heterogeneous crowd: scientists, artists, teachers, students, parents, and children, from many different countries, each one going about their work, their life, and in some cases waking up and going to bed at the sound of the microtome’s powerful lead screw.

Among this curious, intelligent, and benevolent group , were the directors of a UK theater company called Analogue, Hannah Barker and Liam Jarvis. I received a call from Liam only a few days after all the slices of brain had been archived in one of our freezers; the idea: a play about the brain of H.M.. The rest, thanks to their creativity and determination, is art history.

What intrigued me about their proposal was the fact that they were not only interested in the story of Henry G. Molaison as an amnesic, but they were eager to narrate his story from the perspective of his brain. Indeed, they had captured the message I was hoping to relay with my procedure and by displaying my work on his brain publicly: that is: the brain had a face and that there was not going to be a story without the brain.

A funny story: as many of you know, the brain was embedded in gelatin and subsequently frozen. At the very beginning and at the very end of the procedure the tips of the hemispheres looked like pale structures below the ice slate of a frozen pond. Nevertheless, I knew the blade was slithering the first and last actual tissue section. At the end, I had collected 2,400 slices and I wasn’t sure there was anything left to remove from the block. However, the number 2,400 was too even, too approximate. I figured that if asked how many slices were created out of the brain of patient H.M., anyone would have answered ‘twenty-four-hundred’, potentially giving the impression that the actual number could have very well been a little lower or higher.

Instead, I felt it was necessary to make a stronger statement, not just for dramatization, but to make sure that the message was not diluted. The message being: what are we? Can the life experience of a human being be reduced to exactly two thousand four hundred and one slices? This is a philosophical question that I ask myself each time I perform a brain autopsy on one of my donors. Has this person now become an object?

Maybe if I had stopped at 2,400 slices I would not have captured the imagination of Liam and Hannah; or maybe it would not have made a difference in their goals. I am sure of one thing; 2,401 is a number that now has an ‘iconic’ status, also thanks to Hannah and Liam.

Analogue’s show won a Fringe First award at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The complete transcript of 2,041 objects is published by Oberon Modern Plays.

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