Remembering Man with No Memory

Case study for brain surgeons passes away

Generations of scientists and students knew "Patient H-M" as the man with no memory, and now they know his real name.

Henry Molaison died last Tuesday at the age of 82 in the nursing home in Windsor Locks where he'd lived since 1980, and where his identity had been protected from the curious.

"He enjoyed going to the Big E, he enjoyed going to the beach, and he enjoyed the senior prom we hold every year.  He was voted Prom King," said Sean Carney of Bickford Health Care Center.

Neuroscientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had tracked Molaison monthly after he moved to the home, Carney said.

Molaison lost his capacity to remember in experimental surgery performed in Hartford in 1953.  The operation ended epileptic seizures, but it also removed part of his brain where his memory was located.

"He could recall happenings but he couldn't put the details together," said Carney. "He very much enjoyed the person that was in front of him, the person that was involved in his activity at the moment."

Scientists learned from the operation on Patient H-M the location in the brain of long-term memory, and that short-term memory was something different.  They used his experience in developing tests and techniques.

For example, when Gloria Mengual prepared herself for similar surgery to end similar epileptic seizures, she wanted reassurance she wouldn't lose her memory the way Patient H-M had.

"And that was a dear price to pay. I mean, he really couldn't be a functioning member of society after that," she said. 

Her doctor told her she had memory in both hemispheres of her brain so removing one would not remove her capacity to remember.

"I couldn't hold a job before surgery and after surgery.  Here I'm employed and productive.  I really feel like I owe it to him," Mengual said.

Molaison's contribution to science continues.  Researchers at the University of California, San Diego received Molaison's brain shortly after he died from respiratory failure. 

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