Most of the time, veterinary pathologist Donna Bouley, DVM, PhD, provides pathology support for Stanford researchers and clinicians who work with animals.
But she also has an unusual hobby: Bouley, known to all as Dr. B, collects animal brains. Since 1997, she and others have taken “Dr. B’s Brain Collection” to local schools for a variety of science programs. Fascinated by this idea, I contacted her to learn more.
What inspired you to create your brain collection? What does it include?
When I first started as faculty at Stanford, there were some preserved brains in the necropsy [animal autopsy] lab. I decided to start collecting more brains from animals that came to necropsy, when we didn’t need their brains to make our diagnosis. The word somehow got out that such a resource existed on campus. Now, I actually have two collections that are almost identical, because multiple labs were interested in borrowing the collection at the same time.
In each collection, I try to have at least one of the following brains: sheep, pig, dog, macaque, squirrel monkey, rabbit, owl, rat, mouse, cyclid (fish), and Xenopus laevis (an African clawed frog). The brains are preserved and sealed in ‘seal-a-meal’ style bags or jars.
If any new species come through necropsy, I try to get brains from those animals. I also have to replace damaged ones each year, since the enthusiasm of middle schoolers can often result in the rough handling of my bagged brains. My necropsy tech keeps a close watch over the condition of the collections and replaces brains as needed or when available.
How do you use the collection at Stanford?
I teach a freshman seminar called Comparative Anatomy and Physiology of Mammals that tends to have several pre-vet and pre-med students each year. I use these brains to demonstrate various features that are similar or different between them, such as overall size, location of the cerebellum or the extent of brain surface folds and ridges. For instance, in lower mammals such as rodents — that survive mainly on instinct rather than cognitive processing — the brain has a very smooth surface. In mammals such as a pig, dog, or macaque that are higher functioning and quite intelligent, the brain surface is highly folded or convoluted. And dolphins and elephants have even more convolutions in their brains than humans!
I also have colleagues that teach Comparative Neuroanatomy at the graduate level, and they borrow the brains.
I can only speak about my own college student reactions to exposure to this field and tell you in general they are amazed and in awe. They never look at animals the same after taking my class.
How do others use the brain collection?
Graduate students from Stanford psychology or neurobiology labs generally take a brain collection to nearby middle schools, where they work with students during a science class. They most likely also bring some human brains that they compare to the animal brains. Having unique visual teaching tools — real brains, not models or pictures — helps the middle schoolers gain insight into the complexity of the nervous system. Learning about anatomy from a truly comparative aspect is incredibly valuable, because it demonstrates the similarities as well as the unique differences between humans and other mammals.
I’m sure that 'Dr. B’s Brains' provide a very lasting impression on students.
Previously: This is your brain on science: NIH funds eight K-12 neuroscience education programs and “Ultimately about discover”: High-school students experience hands-on biology research
Photo courtesy of Donna Bouley; photo in featured entry box by jesse orrico