It rests on the lab bench, in a Styrofoam box plastered with “Urgent Delivery” and “Fragile” stickers, while two research assistants prepare the dissection laboratory. One has tuned a small radio to a classical station. The sounds of bassoons and strings waft into the room. The opus is an allegro – upbeat and quick.
The technicians glide around the room with practised coordination. They are cloaked in knee-length blue plastic aprons, sleeves tucked into latex gloves. They tape absorbent mats to the bench tops and lay out scalpels and forceps.
Josée Prud’homme adjusts her face mask and eye shield, and nods to her colleague, Maâmar Bouchouka.
Bouchouka lifts the red biohazard bag from the box and slices it open with a scalpel.
“We’re starting. It’s 13:21,” he says.
He pats the brain down with paper cloths and sets it on a white cutting board. It slouches a bit. The tissue has started to break down. The brain is pink and a little shiny. Dark red blood vessels snake through the deep wrinkles and folds of the cerebral cortex, like rivers through weathered canyons.
It’s the brain of someone who took his life over the weekend, and was donated to the Quebec Brain Bank shortly thereafter.
“It’s very emotional, each time we receive a brain at the bank. We don’t get used to death,” says Prud’homme.
For 90 minutes, Bouchouka and Prud’homme will remove and freeze the brain’s key structures. They’ll separate the two hemispheres, preserving one in a rectangular clear plastic container filled with a formaldehyde solution, and cutting the other into one-centimetre-thick slices flash-frozen for storage at minus 80 degrees Celsius.
Now named S-252, this brain has become a critical resource for scientists interested in the biological and environmental underpinnings of mental illness.