Every brain donation does not begin in a hospital morgue, but in a large and well-stocked funeral home. The arrangement allows researchers to remove the brain and quickly take it one block away to their dissection laboratory, after which the family can proceed with a funeral or cremation.
Aliria’s autopsy began at 11:30 a.m. three hours after her death. The senior team members of Dr. Villegas, Dr. Aguillon and Johana Gómez, a biologist dressed in plastic overalls, masks and face shields, took precautions required by the pandemic while a medical student, Carlos Rueda, took notes.
The team removed the brain relatively easily, though the process is always complicated, with connective tissue that needs to be carefully severed. Dr. Villegas then extracted the pituitary gland and olfactory membrane, structures of interest to Alzheimer’s researchers, from deep within the skull. The group took samples of skin, tumor, and vital organs before leaving the remains of their famous patient, on whom so much research hopes were tied, for cremation.
Within minutes, the group came together again in the Brain Bank Dissection Lab, a room no bigger than a walk-in closet, down the street. It was almost 1 p.m. and Dr. Aguillon put Aliria’s brain on a scale. It weighed 894 grams, just under two pounds – significantly less than a healthy brain. Mr. Rueda started photographing it on a rotating platform, on which a three-dimensional image was created, while Dr. Villegas told and Dr. Aguillon typed.
Dr. Villegas noted that the brain was atrophied in a manner typical of an Alzheimer’s patient and that he saw little evidence of cancer, although it was present in many other organs. The low weight of the brain made Dr. Villegas curious as Aliria’s symptoms weren’t that advanced. In the months before her death, she still recognized her family and friends, still cooked her own meals and bathed herself, and had no trouble remembering words like “neuroscience” and “coronavirus”.