Russell Buono, a.k.a. Dr. Brain Dude, was in his element last week holding court at the Brain Health Fair at the Convention Center.
He cradled a 3½-pound preserved human brain in his purple-gloved hands as 7-year-old Ariel Foye, her two front teeth missing, peppered him with questions. The East Oak Lane girl wondered what would happen if the dangling spinal cord broke and whether the brain had belonged to a child or adult. She suggested that one part looked like coral, an observation that prompted praise from Buono, whose primary job involves doing genetic research and teaching neuroanatomy to medical students at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University.
“She’s smart,” he said to a crowd of attentive but less verbal brain fans.
Then Ariel, who is interested in medical work someday, asked the question she seemed to care most about. “Why would a person give another person their body parts? This is kind of nasty.”
After 19 years as Dr. Brain Dude — a name bestowed long ago by a sixth grader who recognized him in a Cincinnati mall — Buono had heard this question many times, and he had a ready answer. People donate their bodies to medical schools so that others can learn to be doctors, he said. “Some of these people wanted to be teachers and professors in life,” he told Ariel. “Now they are teachers and professors. … Without them, I wouldn’t be able to do this.”
Buono, along with Tom Ferraro, his friend, fellow Cooper researcher, and deputy brain dude, had one of the most popular booths at the brain fair, an event for the community sponsored by the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), which met last week in Philadelphia. The organization’s goal was to give everyone from kids barely tall enough to see above the display table to older people who have the diseases neurologists treat an opportunity to experience what is routine for medical students: seeing and touching actual human brains, albeit brains that have been preserved in formaldehyde and stored in a solution that prevents mold.
Buono started down this route years ago after realizing that a parent who could bring a human brain to school would be a real hit at those dreaded parents-explain-what-they-do events. That led to other school gigs and events at museums. He’s done several of AAN’s annual meetings. He estimates that from 30,000 to 40,000 people have seen his brains. In addition to several human brains, he and Ferraro travel with the brains of a variety of animals, including a rat, a pig, a cow, and a dolphin. They’ve built on a collection started by a former boss at the Coatesville Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where both once worked.
Buono loves how people respond to his brains. “People’s faces light up when they see a real human brain,” he said. In truth, many in last week’s crowd of more than 3,000 were instantly fascinated by the brains, but a fair percentage reacted with grimaces. Curiosity overcame disgust for some, but others moved on to tamer exhibits with, say, pamphlets and plastic brains.
Ferraro loves the positive reactions, too, and he clearly loves talking about brain anatomy. He hopes the experience will help more people appreciate science. He still feels a kind of awe when he holds the surprisingly heavy and remarkably mysterious brains. “That is what made someone who they were,” he said.
Buono, a biologist who studies the genetics of epilepsy and opioid addiction, said this volunteer outreach is his way of giving back. A favorite mentor told him that "one of the most important things you can do is pass on what you've learned to the next generation … so I try to live it."
The brains that Buono and Ferraro let people hold are in zipper storage bags. They belonged to people who died 16 or 17 years ago. The brain dudes know nothing about their former owners, not even their gender. The preserved brains are a little harder and more claylike than fresh brains, which feel more like beef liver, Buono says. The brains are also showing some wear and tear, but retain their intricate, lumpy terrain. Some have been cut in half to reveal a little of the inner structure.
The animal brains, which stay in glass jars, came from lab animals — Buono doesn’t do animal research — at the VA, but others are donations from hunters or roadkill. A guy brought Buono a squirrel that died in an attic. The cow brain came from a slaughterhouse. The raccoon got caught in a trap. Buono got the impressively large dolphin brain from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s marine stranding program. He has to report on its use and will have to give it back if he ever decides to quit being Dr. Brain Dude. “They’re very proud and happy that this brain has seen so many kids,” he said.
At the brain fair, Buono and Ferraro had no trouble convincing Erica Preston, a 35-year-old migraine sufferer from Canton, N.Y., that the brain is amazing. She gawked at the animal brains, listened to the dudes raptly, and asked a ton of questions. Her face lit up when she held a brain. “That was crazy,” she said afterward. “There’s so much knowledge there. … I feel like I need to go sit in a corner and digest everything. It’s so awesome.”
The brain dudes would agree.