The legacy of HM; or, scientists behaving badly

There is a book about Henry Molaison (HM) that will be coming out tomorrow and it is already causing a bit of a fuss in the scientific community. There is an excerpt in the New York Times Magazine which investigates how the lead researcher (Corkin) dealt with her authority, especially after HM passed away. It kind of has to be read to be believed:

…Despite what she said during the meeting, Corkin’s central problem with the paper, the one she pushed back on hardest, wasn’t Annese’s chatty writing style. Instead she was concerned with something Annese had discovered in Henry’s brain.

Specifically, Annese’s analysis had revealed a previously unreported lesion in Henry’s frontal lobe. The lesion was in the left hemisphere and appeared to have been caused by a man-made object…As one of the paper’s anonymous peer reviewers pointed out, “much of the neuropsychological literature on H.M. has made the case that so-­called frontal function was intact.”

When Corkin sent Annese her revisions of his paper, she deleted all references to the newly discovered frontal lesion. In a note to Annese, she explained that “the frontal lobe lesion does not appear on either the in situ scans [the M.R.I. scans made while the brain was still in Henry’s skull] or the fresh brain photos” and that “any consideration of it would be highly misleading.” Annese responded with a series of images from in situ M.R.I. scans that, contrary to Corkin’s assertions, gave clear views of the lesion.

The paper has since been published here. Here is the (fairly clear) lesion which can also be seen in old (1991-92) MRIs:

HM frontal lobes

Then it turns out that the ‘next of kin’ that became his conservator, donating HMs brain and consenting to further experiments, was not only chosen by Corkin but also was not remotely his next of kin.

Eventually, over the phone, Mooney told me that he and Henry were third cousins, very distant relations.

I asked Corkin whether she was aware that when Mooney became Henry’s conservator, one of Henry’s first cousins, Frank Molaison, was living nearby — his actual next of kin — and had not been consulted. I mentioned that his name should have made him particularly easy to find.

“I was not aware of his existence,” she said.

I asked whether she had ever done any genealogical research at all into the man she had studied for almost a half-­century.

“No,” she said.

I had tracked down and spoken with Henry’s closest living relatives, and some were surprised and disturbed to learn about the things Corkin and her colleagues did with their cousin while he was alive and about the fight over his brain that took place after his death.

I asked Corkin why she arranged for Mooney to apply to become Henry’s conservator in the first place. I knew that for more than a decade before Mooney was named Henry’s conservator, Henry himself had been the only one signing the consent forms for his experiments.

“I just wanted another level of security,” Corkin said. “Another person who was not amnesiac and who had Henry’s best interests at heart.”

I asked what she meant by “security.” Security from what?

“For Henry,” she said. “For M.I.T.”

And what were M.I.T.’s vulnerabilities?

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’d have to ask our lawyers that.”

Someone posted HM’s informed consent form, which claims that HM’s close relatives had passed away which is…clearly not true if his cousin by the same surname lived nearby.

And hey, the whole thing only gets worse (emphasis added):

Me: Right. And what’s going to happen to the files themselves?

(She paused for several seconds.)

Corkin: Shredded.

Me: Shredded? Why would they be shredded?

Corkin: Nobody’s gonna look at them.

Me: Really? I can’t imagine shredding the files of the most important research subject in history. Why would you do that?

Corkin: Well, you can’t just take one test on one day and draw conclusions about it. That’s a very dangerous thing to do.

Me: Yeah, but your files would be comprehensive. They would span decades.

Corkin: Yeah, well, the tests are gone. The test data. The data sheets are gone. Because the stuff is published. Most of it is published. Or a lot of it is published.

Me: But not all of it.

Corkin: Well, the things that aren’t published are, you know, experiments that just didn’t … [another long pause] go right. Didn’t. You know, there was a problem. He had a seizure or something like that.

And on and on. Read the article in full, it is pretty mindblowing (and full of great gossip). Neuroskeptic wrote a review of the full book earlier in the summer which has some other interesting morsels.

As written, a charitable reading of the article is that Corkin did not want to try too hard to wrestle with the ethics of her experiments on this man’s life, wanted to willfully ignore any complicating evidence, and saw no need for others to look at her data. Charitably.

Update

Some push back on the article from a couple of groups. First is Earl Miller and 200 neuroscientists (who?) with the following letter to the NYT:

“We are a community of scientists who are disturbed by a recent New York Times Magazine article (“The Brain That Couldn’t Remember”), which describes Professor Suzanne Corkin’s research in what we believe are biased and misleading ways. A number of complex issues that occur in research with humans, from differing interpretations of data among collaborators to the proper disposition of confidential data, are presented in a way so as to call into question Professor Suzanne Corkin’s integrity. These assertions are contrary to everything we have known about her as a scientist, colleague, and friend. Professor Corkin dedicated her life to using the methods of neuropsychology to illuminate how the brain gives rise to the mind, especially how different regions of the human brain support different aspects of memory. Her scientific contributions went far beyond her work with the amnesic patient HM (whose well being she protected for decades), with major contributions to understanding clinical disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. She was a highly accomplished scientist, an inspiring teacher, a beloved mentor to students and faculty, and a champion of women in science. While her recent passing is a great loss to our field, her passion and commitment continue to inspire all of us. We only regret that she is not able to respond herself.”

Second is Jenni Ogden who reviews the book in Psychology Today. It puts the above in more context but I don’t see it really rebutting any of the key points.

I am hearing on twitter that Corkin did not, in fact, shred documents but do not understand how that jives with the above direct quotation. “A full rebuttal” is on its way.

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2 thoughts on “The legacy of HM; or, scientists behaving badly

  1. Pingback: More on the legacy of HM; or, journalists behaving badly | neuroecology

  2. Thanks for posting about this. I had not been aware of the controversy, although in some ways not surprised. Earl Miller et al.’s response is infuriating – sure maybe the portrayal is contrary to “everything” *you* know about Corkin, but nothing in that quote refutes any of the evidence being presented. This is a a great example of scientists-as-humans protecting their own self interest and the interests of their institutions.

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