More on the legacy of HM; or, journalists behaving badly

Well that was fast. The book excerpt on HM and Corkin has gone over like a lead balloon. Here are some excerpts of a statement by Jim DiCarlo, head of BCS at MIT:

1. Allegation that research records were or would be destroyed or shredded.

We believe that no records were destroyed and, to the contrary, that Professor Corkin worked in her final days to organize and preserve all records. Even as her health failed (she had advanced cancer and was receiving chemotherapy), she instructed her assistant to continue to organize, label, and maintain all records related to Henry Molaison. The records currently remain within our department.

2. Allegation that the finding of an additional lesion in left orbitofrontal cortex was suppressed.

The public record is clear that Professor Corkin communicated this discovery of an additional lesion in Mr. Molaison to both scientific and public audiences. This factual evidence is contradictory to any allegation of the suppression of a finding.

3. Allegation that there was something inappropriate in the selection of Tom Mooney as Mr. Molaison’s guardian.

Mr. Dittrich identifies some individuals who were genetically closer to Mr. Molaison than Mrs. Herrick or her son, but it is our understanding that this family took in Mr. Molaison and his mother, and took care of Mr. Molaison for many years. Mr. Mooney was appointed conservator by the local court after a valid legal process, which included providing notice of a hearing and appointment of counsel to Mr. Molaison.

So: no research records destroyed, no attempt to suppress the lesion, nothing inappropriate about asking a very-extended family member that had already been taking care of HM for many years to be his conservator.

It will be interesting to see the re-rebuttal. Assuming that the author recorded the conversation, he would have a direct quote from Corkin saying she would shred the documents. And assuming that the author has the e-mails and paper revisions, you would Corkin attempting to delete the lesion data from the initial versions of the paper – unless the author has totally taken that out of context.

I would love to hear from the fact-checkers at the publishing house…

Update – from the comments below, Neuroskeptic points to the re-rebuttal from the author of the original piece. Basically sums up my ‘interesting’ statement above which is: they have sources and evidence for all of the assertions (such as recordings, etc).

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.


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.

Kavli Prize

Looks like it’s science prize week on neuroecology… I missed that the Kavli prize winners were announced earlier this month. The Kavli Prize goes to researchers in astrophysics, nanophysics, and neuroscience (yeah, I don’t get the connection either.)

This year’s neuroscience winners are Brenda Milner, John O’Keefe, and Marcus E. Raichle “for the discovery of specialized brain networks for memory and cognition.” The summaries of their work:

Brenda Milner discovered regions of the brain specialized for memory formation and other cognitive functions.  She found that HM, a neurological patient with damage to the hippocampus and surrounding regions, could not acquire new memories of events, but could speak, reason and recall long-past memories.

John O’Keefe discovered that the hippocampus contains neurons that encode an animal’s specific location. These place cells allow detection of novelty and changes in familiar environments and collectively form a cognitive map critical for animal navigation behaviour.

Marcus E. Raichle designed methods for visualizing the activity of the normal living human brain. These techniques permitted the quantitative measurements of blood flow and metabolism in localized regions of the brain and provided the basis for all modern functional imaging studies.

Nature Reviews Neuroscience has an interview with the three winners (paywall, sadly). This left me flabbergasted:

In 1936, I went to Cambridge University to study mathematics but soon realized that I would never distinguish myself in that field. I thought of switching to philosophy because I was still attracted to the study of logic but my colleagues advised me to try experimental psychology instead, since it would be easier to find a job afterwards. It turned out to be a very good choice.

1936?! And this woman is still receiving awards? I don’t know whether to be proud of her or terrified. Interestingly, two of the three winners specifically mentioned their interest in philosophy. How many would these days?