Alzheimer’s Researchers Examine a Uncommon Mind

While they waited for Aliria’s body to arrive, Dr. Villegas and the staff each other their demands with: freezers checked, sterile gloves, iodine, cell culture medium, tissue preservative mixed and done. The brain bank frequently sends tissue to its staff overseas, and within a few days samples from Aliria’s brain are being examined in Germany and California, as well as Medellín.

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.

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