A splitting headache

by Christina Jedra / Beacon Staff • November 15, 2012

Brain courtesy
This is Emerson’s second annual dissection.
Beacon Staff
This is Emerson’s second annual dissection.
Beacon Staff

Tuesday night, Dr. Vinoth Jagaroo stood in the center of the Semel Theater holding a tan, fleshy mass that may have looked like a small, uncooked Thanksgiving turkey to those sitting far away. 

Separated parts of the object lined the demonstration table as he held a whole specimen in his hand and prodded it with a tool for a nearby camera. But one quick glance at the projection screen behind him revealed distinctive wrinkles and veiny lines. This was a human brain. 

For the second year in a row, the college hosted a brain dissection by Jagaroo, an Emerson professor and cognitive neuroscientist. For two hours, he poked, cut, ripped, and pointed at different parts of multiple human brains for an audience of over 120. Behind him were two screens: one showing presentation slides with pictures and labels, and another with a live feed of the dissection, zoomed in on his hands and the organ. 

“We’re in business. There’s our nice thalamus,” Jagaroo said to the audience as he cut through a wall of brain matter and pointed out a distinctive part. 

“This is now blunt dissection at its best,” he added. “We’ll just scoop it out.” 

Throughout the presentation, Jagaroo noted different areas of the brain, including cranial nerves, white and gray matter, the thalamus, the hippocampus, and the tapetum, which he compared to its namesake, “tapestry.”

He frequently mentioned theories associated with the brain parts, brought up debates occurring in the scientific community, and challenged the audience to predict what would be behind the section he was currently dissecting. Intermittently, the professor picked up his printout of presentation slides to check his progress, with small pieces of brain matter falling from his gloves and onto his working tray. 

In an interview, Jagaroo explained the usefulness of such a presentation. 

“Even though science isn’t the emphasis of the school, our department — Communication Sciences and Disorders — deals very often with speech disorders that have a brain basis,” Jagaroo said. “We have a number of liberal arts courses, even going down to Introduction to Psychology where there’s usually a big neuro component ... all of which talk about the brain, so it’s useful for those students.” 

He said that seeing a brain dissection is the best possible way to learn about neural systems. 

“[It’s useful] when you see it peeled off and unlayered in front of you,” Jagaroo said. “Learning it from pictures is fine, but without actually seeing these things, it’s very difficult to appreciate some of them.” 

Abbey Interrante, a freshman writing, literature, and publishing student, was impressed with the lecture. 

While Interrante, who has not taken a psychology class, felt that some of the subject matter was over her head, she said she enjoyed learning about how the functions of the brain are interconnected.

“I honestly didn’t know what he was talking about most of the time,” said Interrante. “But this opportunity doesn’t come around a lot. It’s not everyday you have the option to see a brain. I’m really happy I went.” 

In the interview, Jagaroo stressed how difficult it was to carry out a dissection in such a limited amount of time. 

“This is an enormously difficult dissection to carry out in two hours,” he said. “Normally — and I’m not exaggerating — this is done for two to three days, for eight hours each day. I think the essential things that I wanted to convey get conveyed, but they could’ve been done better.” 

Jagaroo said that last year’s dissection was much smoother, since he had more time to prepare the brains, which cost about $800 each to obtain, and he had better specimens to work with. But he said he’s already planning how to improve next year’s event. He hopes to have a longer lecture, perhaps on a Saturday when more working professionals would be able to attend. 

Wrapping up his presentation, Jagaroo wiped away some spare brain parts he’d removed. 

“I’m going to put these away,” he said. “Let me know if you want them.”