In 2011, American photographer Adam Voorhes was hired by Scientific American to take a series of photos of a brain at the Animal Resource Center at the University of Texas at Austin..
The task led to an extraordinary discovery. The neuroscientist who showed him the brain he had to photograph took him to a small room used to store cleaning products, and there, against a wall, he revealed his hidden treasure: a collection of almost 100 old bottles full of brains.
Fascinated by this image and filled with curiosity about the origin of these brains, which were so rare, Voorhes recruited his friend, journalist Alex Hannaford, to conduct an investigation into the origin of this unusual collection.
It was thus that both discovered that these jars, now forgotten and ignored, were once the great prize that disputed the best universities of the country.
It happened in 1987 and the newspaper Houston Chronicle He called it "the battle of the brains".
But where did the collection originate? and why was it considered so valuable?
This is what Voorhes and Hannaford began to investigate, which years later published their findings in the Book "malformed".
Hannaford discovered that the collection was created by a physician: Coleman of Chenar, a pathologist at Austin State Hospital, from the mid-1980s.
The hospital was formerly known as the Texas State Lunatic Asylum and the brains that De Chenar held belonged. patients to whom he performed autopsies.
Hannaford told BBC World that it is not known whether patients donated their brains voluntarily or whether the decision was made by others.
The truth is that the De Chenar collection has accumulated samples of all kinds of mental illnesses, many of which have caused severe deformities in the brains.
That's why the collection looks so strange. And it is also what makes it so unusual: some of the recorded disorders are now effectively treated.
For example, several examples of hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid in the brain that causes serious problems and causes these organs to appear swollen or deformed.
Today the excess fluid is drained through a surgically placed conduit.
The collection also includes one of the most extreme cases of lissencephaly, a condition that makes the brain appear abnormally smooth without the characteristic grooves and grooves.
Usually, the problem affects part of the brain, but in this collection there is one that is completely smooth.
All this explains why in 1987, when the Austin State Hospital decided to donate the collection, the main universities of the country They offer to get it.
A note in the Houston Chronicle tells of the "battle" and explains that the nation's leading medical education institutions wanted the collection for its value as a research tool.
"Exist so much information available in these brain tissues many researchers are clamoring for them, "said Dr. Edward D. Bird, associate professor of neuropathology at Harvard Medical School, to the journal.
In the end, the winner of the award was the University of Texas, which he obtained thanks to his historic link with Austin State Hospital where his medical students took internships.
But the truth is that after being strongly contested, the collection at the end was forgotten.
Voorhes told BBC World that he and Hannaford had tried to find out more about what had happened.
They noticed that most of the bottles had labels They contained three data: a reference number, the condition suffered by the patient (written in archaic Latin), and the date of death.
They then tried to find the corresponding documents with this record, but, to their great disappointment, they never found them.
The university said they were in the hospital and the hospital said otherwise.
But what they were able to discover is that original collection was twice the size: about 200 brains in total.
And that many of the missing organs were from patients with schizophrenia.
In fact, the large number of samples of this disease was another factor that made the collection so coveted.
What happened to those lost brains? Nobody knows. As with the records, both blame themselves.
But the history of the collection has a happy ending. Thanks to the interest generated by the book "Malformed", the University of Texas decided to re-evaluate its sample.
Her new medical school created magnetic resonance imaging of all brains in order to preserve its value as a research tool.
And, according to the authors, recent discoveries made using other collections of brains that also have decades suggest that this collection, which went from stardom to oblivion, could still shine again.