A Brain Collection, 1862-present

Whole brain slices from the Yakovlev-Haleem collection. Credit: Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine, AFIP, Photo: ® Jason varney | Varneyphoto.com" />Whole brain slices from the Yakovlev-Haleem collection. Credit: Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine, AFIP, Photo: ® Jason varney | Varneyphoto.com

Mar 1, 2008
John Allman
<figcaption>Whole brain slices from the Yakovlev-Haleem collection. Credit: Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine, AFIP, Photo: ® Jason varney | Varneyphoto.com</figcaption>
Whole brain slices from the Yakovlev-Haleem collection. Credit: Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine, AFIP, Photo: ® Jason varney | Varneyphoto.com

The neuroanatomical resources of the National Museum of Health and Medicine at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology date back to 1862. There are several collections, the most well-known of which is probably the Yakovlev-Haleem Collection, which consists of almost 1,200 specimens from the embryo to the centenarian. Other groupings are the extensive comparative collections of Wally Welker and John I. Johnson and the Lindenberg Forensic Neuroanatomy Collection. Many large collections have been added in recent decades.

Each item has been serially sectioned and histologically stained. Pictured is a set of whole brain slices from the Yakovlev-Haleem collection, sitting in a drawer among many similarly filled drawers. This collection of singularly stunning items is an ideal resource for studying ontogeny of the human brain and for comparisons between the brains of human and non-human primates. Hundreds of scientists have made use of the collection. It was even used recently when toxicologists were enlisted to investigate the cause of dolphin beachings in southern California. Scientists were able to isolate the hippocampal areas as those affected by a particular toxin.

I have used this collection to investigate von Economo neurons (VENs, also known as spindle cells) which are large bipolar neurons located in anterior cingulate and fronto-insular cortex and are a recent specialization in the evolution of the human brain. VENs are also unusual in that they emerge mainly after birth during the first year and are much more abundant in the right hemisphere than the left. Using several exceptionally well-documented cases in the collection, together with William Seeley and his colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, we have discovered that the VENs degenerate in a variant of fronto-temporal dementia that severely disrupts social cognition and self-awareness.