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Learning about MRI Limitations at the Brain Museum

At the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences’s Brain Museum in Bengaluru, India, visitors can touch and feel real human brains. In 1979, the museum started collecting brains that have endured some kind of disease or infection. Today, the museum houses all kinds of brains — from healthy hosts to patients who died from Japanese encephalitis — among a wide variety of conditions.

The brains are preserved in Formalin, giving them a shiny, fresh glow. The museum once received around 300 brains a year to autopsy. However, that rate has declined since the invention of MRI. Today, there is minimal reason to ask for autopsies. Physicians can spot pathologies in the scans themselves before the disease has gone too far. Even when patients die, the scans reveal legible images allowing doctors to give accurate diagnoses.

Yet, there are instances where an autopsy can determine crucial circumstances that a scan can’t detect. Take for example, a female patient whose brain is now at the museum. She died from neurocysticercosis - cerebral, a parasitic tissue infection caused by a tapeworm. The patient had suffered from manic episodes and auditory hallucinations, and was believed to have been tormented by her husband. According to scientists at the Brain Museum, MRI scans wouldn’t have been able to show clear images of the tapeworm pits.

According to one of the museum’s researchers, pathologist Anita Mahadevan, MD, MRI scans leave many unanswered questions. “Why is the nerve cell dying? What can we do to prevent it? Can we find a treatment?” she said

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