It’s an amazing sight, Dr. Carol Miller in her laboratory, an intent, bespectacled woman bent over a bit of partially dissected lobe, neatly labeled containers of human brains towering at one side of her, a worn brain schematic, which she consults like a motorist trying to find a side street in the Thomas Guide, taped to the wall over the dissection table.
“I know it’s in here somewhere,” she says, rummaging through a tub of parts as casually as if she were trying to find an apple corer in a gadgets drawer. “Aha,” she says, “the pons,” and she holds aloft a gray cashew of tissue, a tiny lump of nerve cells without which we would be unable to breathe, sleep or dream. She deftly slices off a bit of the organ, snaps it into a sort of ventilated plastic capsule, and drops it into a container of preservative. Later, microscope slides will be prepared, which Miller and her team will study like a book.
Miller is the chief of Neuropathology at the USC/L.A. County Medical Center, and her lab is renowned for its contributions to basic Alzheimer’s disease research, gathered laboriously brain by brain by brain. With her late husband, the famous behavioral geneticist Dr. Seymour Benzer, she uncovered similarities between the human brain and that of a fruit fly, the implications of which are still being explored. (Benzer, with whom, in the words of a colleague, she collaborated on several papers and one child, first fell for her because he thought she resembled the subject of a Vermeer painting she loved.) She showed Nobel winner James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, his first brain. When you reach for a doorknob 50 years from now, and you remember its purpose instead of finding it strange and abstract in your hand, your clarity may owe something to Miller’s lab.
But there is one thing with a brain she will never do. “Eat brains?” she says. “I don’t think so. They’re almost 100 percent cholesterol.”