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Alzheimer’s Researchers Study a Rare Brain

On the morning of Nov. 10, Dr. Andrés Villegas, the director of the brain bank, solemnly shared news of Aliria’s death with his colleagues. “This is a historic moment,” he wrote. The team had not worked with the brain of an extreme outlier before, and it was unclear to Dr. Villegas whether other researchers had, either. But Dr. Villegas said he was also saddened. Many in the research group had come to regard Aliria as a friend, and her death from cancer had been painful and premature.

His colleague Dr. David Aguillon, in the meantime, took a taxi to extend condolences to Aliria’s family and receive their final consent papers. Dr. Aguillon had cared for Aliria in recent years and accompanied her on study visits to Boston. During their last trip, in April 2019, when Aliria was still recovering from a knee surgery, he had pushed her all around the cold and rainy city in a wheelchair, a memory she cherished for what remained of her life.

While they waited for Aliria’s body to arrive, Dr. Villegas and the staff messaged each other demands: freezers checked, sterile gloves, iodine, cell culture medium, tissue preservative mixed and ready. The brain bank often sends tissue to its collaborators abroad, and within days samples of Aliria’s brain would be under study in Germany and California, as well as Medellín.

Each brain donation begins not in a hospital mortuary but in a large and well-equipped funeral home. The arrangement allows the researchers to remove the brain and walk it quickly to their dissection lab a block away, after which the family can proceed with a funeral or cremation.

Aliria’s autopsy started at 11:30 a.m., three hours after her death. Dr. Villegas’s senior team members, Dr. Aguillon and Johana Gómez, a biologist, suited up in plastic overalls, masks and face shields, precautions made necessary by the pandemic, while a medical student, Carlos Rueda, stood by taking notes.

The team removed the brain with relative ease, although the process is always intricate, with connective tissue that must be carefully severed. Dr. Villegas then extracted from deeper in the skull the pituitary gland and olfactory membrane, structures of interest to Alzheimer’s researchers. The group took samples of skin, tumor and vital organs, before leaving the remains of their famous patient, one on whom so many research hopes have been pinned, to be cremated.

Within minutes the group converged again down the street at the brain bank’s dissection lab, a room no bigger than a walk-in closet. It was nearly 1 p.m., and Dr. Aguillon placed Aliria’s brain on a scale. It weighed 894 grams, just under two pounds — considerably less than a healthy brain. Mr. Rueda began photographing it on a rotating platform used to create a three-dimensional image, while Dr. Villegas narrated and Dr. Aguillon typed.

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