Takes guts to get these brains

vital lessons:A tour through the brain museum at NIMHANS is as fascinating as it is chilling.— Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

vital lessons:A tour through the brain museum at NIMHANS is as fascinating as it is chilling.— Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy  

A tour through the brain museum at NIMHANS is as fascinating as it is chilling

When you step foot in this museum at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS) on Hosur Road, you will have to admit, it feels like you have entered the sets of a rather graphic sci-fi film.

Over 300 brain specimens are preserved in jars at the ‘brain museum’ managed by the Department of Neuropathology. And each brain has a story to tell — whether chilling, tragic or fascinating — which you discover during a guided tour of the museum with its conceptualiser, S.K. Shankar, who has been a professor at the Department for the past 32 years.

Your school biology textbooks come alive. And terms that you once grappled with — grey matter, white matter and the hippocampus — begin to make distinct sense. Just point to the specimen, and Dr. Shankar narrates its history.

“This injury was caused by an accident. The person was clearly not wearing a helmet.” As we move through the racks, he points to brains destroyed by parasites: amoebae entering your brain or a tapeworm eating it away. “An amoeba can enter the brain through your nasal cavity if you are swimming in a dirty pool and you have poor immunity. The tapeworm can enter your body from the dirty coriander in the chaat that you eat,” Dr. Shankar says candidly. Sensing that his prognosis might scare you to the bones, and have you reconsider every micro-decision you make in daily life, he reassures: “This does not mean you do not swim or eat your chaat . Just make sure that the swimming pool is clean and that the coriander is washed.”

This museum, which was set up to educate people, also has a strong optimistic message for visitors to take home. “Almost 70 per cent of these conditions are preventable or treatable. The key message here is to ensure that you get diagnosed and get suitable intervention at the early stages.”

In the three years of its existence, the brain museum has attracted hundreds of school and college students. And the most popular part of the tour? Getting to hold a brain or a heart in your hands at the end of the visit! Nothing excites young students more than to pose for the cameras with these specimen in their hands, he says.

“I want to raise curiosity about neurosciences,” says Dr. Shankar about the goals he wants to achieve through the museum. “As our collection of brain samples grew over the years we decided to make a brain museum to educate the public.” All the samples collected over the past 30 years have been obtained with the consent of the deceased person’s relatives.

Opposite the brain museum is a ‘brain bank’ where students of NIMHANS conduct research on brains kept at minus 80 degrees Celsius. Apart from the human brain, there are also brains of animals such as cats, mice and cows on display. Ask Dr. Shankar which his favourite brain is and he confesses: “I have lived with them for 30 years. I cannot pick a favourite!”

The museum is open for guided tours on Saturday between 9 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. and on Wednesdays between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. On the remaining days including Sundays, the museum is open between 9 a.m. and 4.30 pm.

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