Wed, May 08, 2013 - Page 9 News List

The man without memories

When an operation left Henry Molaison unable to form new memories, he became the most important patient in the history of brain science. Neurologist Suzanne Corkin worked with ‘HM’ for 46 years and her new book is both a case study and a fond memoir

By Tim Adams  /  The Observer

Illustration: Mountain People

In 1953, a young man named Henry Gustav Molaison, of Hartford, Connecticut, lost his memory and helped to invent neuroscience. Molaison’s amnesia was the result of a highly risky “psychosurgical” procedure, an operation designed to cure the debilitating epilepsy he had suffered since childhood. In an attempt to remove the part of the brain that was causing Henry’s fits, two holes were drilled in the front of his skull and a portion of his brain, the front half of the hippocampus on both sides, and most of the almond-shaped amygdala, was sucked out. The procedure, hopeful at best, went badly wrong and Henry, then aged 27, was left with no ability to store or retrieve new experiences. He lived the subsequent 55 years of his life, until his death in 2008, in the permanent present moment.

However, Molaison’s tragedy was perhaps also the single most significant advance in understanding the function of memory made in the past century. Until his operation, it had been believed that memory was a property of the whole brain. The accident of his surgery proved a large part of its capacity to be localized in this one area.

The “cleanness” of Henry’s amnesia made his brain the perfect subject for study of cognitive function in many other ways, too. After his operation, living first with his parents and later with carers, he became known to science as “HM” to protect his identity. It was through these initials that a young postgraduate researcher called Suzanne Corkin, now professor of behavioral neuroscience and head of the Corkin Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, got to know him.

Their relationship seemed a little bit like fate. When Corkin came across Henry’s case in medical journals from the late 1950s, she discovered that their lives had already overlapped in curious ways. She had grown up a couple of kilometers from him, in Connecticut, and as a child had lived over the road from the surgeon who had operated on Henry’s brain; the surgeon’s daughter had been her childhood friend. In 1962, as part of her research, Corkin interviewed Henry. Over the next 46 years they spent many days in each other’s company, though for Henry, of course, it was always the first time. Corkin has now written a compelling memoir of that bond between scientist and subject, entitled Permanent Present Tense, a relationship which Henry once described neatly: “It’s a funny thing — you just live and learn. I’m living and you’re learning.”

Corkin’s book is both a case study and a biography, partly written with the mission to show that HM was much more than a filing cabinet of test scores and brain images; he was Henry, “an engaging, docile man, with a keen sense of humor, who knew he had a poor memory and accepted his fate ... and hoped that research into his condition would help others live better lives.”

The striking thing about Henry’s memory loss was how specific it was. He forgot all of his experiences after the operation within 30 seconds, but he retained a good deal of the texture of life he knew up until the age of 27. His personality remained intact, he still had above average IQ and language skills, though for more than 50 years he was able to acquire only the tiniest fragments of self-knowledge.

Speaking to Corkin by telephone at her lab in Boston, I ask if she has missed Henry since his death.

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