Debbie Knight

Brain picking parties, all the rage

In research log on May 10, 2012 at 9:00 am

Warning: this post is not for those who are easily grossed out.

I stumbled across some old photographs of lab days gone by and thought I’d share them with you.

Back in the day we would have “brain picking parties.” And they were all the rage … sort of.

One of many brain picking parties we held in our lab.

The day would start with me going to the meat packing plant to pick up four or five cow brains. Gross, I know. But we needed the growth factors that the brains had in them.

I remember the first time I went to the meat packing plant, I was more than a little disturbed by the sides of beef moving past me on hooks, knowing that a few minutes ago those sides of beef were part of a living, breathing (and probably freaked out) cow.

I wouldn’t eat beef for quite a while after these trips to the plant.

Over time, the meat packers told me that due to tightening safety regulations they would no longer be able to give me the brains. Apparently it was rather dangerous for them to open the bovine skulls (I envisioned a sharp ax, but I’m not sure what they used). However, they did offer that I could take a couple of cow heads to the lab with me … but with visions of The Godfather flickering in my mind, I declined.

We found another source of cow brains – a private butcher. This meant I had to drive an hour each way to get these brains, but it was worth it. However, this place looked like someone’s ranch home gone house of horrors. I couldn’t leave quickly enough from this place. Yikes!

And eventually this source dried up as well.

I’m actually glad because that means we now buy bovine brain extract commercially. It’s not as cheap as buying cow brains at $5 each, but at least I can sleep nightmare free these days.

So, why did we need cow brains? The brain is full of fantastic growth factors that made our cultured endothelial cells (which were isolated from the blood vessels in discarded human umbilical cords) grow like gangbusters. Without the growth factors, the cells simply would not grow when we isolated them.

Making this brain extract was a tedious process, taking days to make, so my lab and another lab who also grew endothelial cells would come together for these “brain picking parties.”

One of our larger brain picking parties.

The most tedious part was removing the outer membranes from the brains – hence the “brain picking” part. And as you might imagine, all sorts of off-color comments and jokes would fly around the lab bench as we removed these membranes (called “meninges”).

We would work with only small portions of the brains at a time. We had to work quickly and keep them chilled because as warmed up in our hands, they would get a bit soft as the fats in them warmed and became more, well, gooey.

A beaker full of "clean" brains

I always found it amazing that this brain, that easily fit in the palm of my hand, had been the thought and coordination center for a half-ton (or more!) animal. I wondered what it had been thinking, feeling, dreaming before its untimely demise.

A younger me, passing out some brains

We would weigh the cleaned brains, put them in a Waring blender (a staple in many a lab) along with some ice-cold saline and make (as we called them) “brain shakes.” These “shakes” were a foamy pink concoction – they didn’t look appetizing in the least. We would pour the blended mixture into a large glass flask that was kept on ice as it stirred for two hours.

"Brain shakes"

Anything that was not extracted was removed using a large centrifuge.

The fats were precipitated out of the solution overnight and removed by centrifugation.

More centrifugation and then the brain extract was placed in small glass bottles which were swirled furiously on a shaker as they were frozen in a dry ice bath. This froze the extract on the sides of the bottles to increase the surface area when we put them in a machine called a lyophilizer. Basically, this machine was a large sealed bin that used a vacuum pump to pull a vacuum. As the contents of the glass bottles warmed up and melted, the vacuum would draw out the water, leaving behind a freeze-dried brain extract. We would then put on lids on the bottles and store them in the freezer until they were needed.

So after two long work-intensive days (and then some waiting), we had our homebrewed bovine brain extract which we treated like gold.

Of course now, with the threat of bovine spongiform encephalitis (or mad cow disease), we would have to do things a little differently.

There you have it. The “good old days” of life in the lab.

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  1. Perhaps you’ve already contracted BSE… that would certainly explain a lot.

    • While entirely within the realm of possibilities, I hope we’ve managed to escape that bullet (fingers crossed).
      And, dare I ask, what exactly do you mean by”that would certainly explain a lot,” Eric?

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