Diseased brains on display at Peru museum

LIMA Wed Feb 21, 2007 9:52am EST

1 of 4. A woman looks at a human brain with a neurological disorder at the brain museum in Lima in this February 15, 2007 picture. Diana Rivas runs a little-known brain museum in the Peruvian capital. She claims it is the only public display of human brains in the world.

Credit: Reuters/Pilar Olivares

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LIMA Feb 2O (Reuters Life!) - Diana Rivas says it only takes her a few seconds to look at a brain to know what afflicted its owner.

"This one belonged to an alcoholic...This one belonged to somebody who had Alzheimer's disease," Rivas said as she passes row after row of brains suspended in preserving liquid and stacked on shelves in a tiny room in central Lima.

Rivas is a neuropathologist who runs a little-known brain museum in the Peruvian capital. She claims it is the only public display of human brains in the world.

The museum has an inventory of 2,998 specimens and is still growing. Rivas studies neurological diseases and psychiatric disorders but, unlike prestigious brain banks around the world, she also lets the public in to wander around.

It is not a tour for the queasy. On display in one room are several human fetuses with neurological disorders. Another exhibit shows a brain afflicted by the human form of mad cow disease which is known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

About 4,000 people, most of them children from local schools, paid the 30 cents entrance fee to trundle past Rivas' brains last year.

Foreign doctors from Germany, Japan and France also visited the museum which sits at the end of a decrepit street where many taxis fear to go.

The museum started collecting samples of diseased brains in 1942. Rivas said she works with researchers on the effects of cysticercosis, an infection caused by pork tapeworm, on the human brain.

But her primary goal is to educate the public.

"The main purpose is for people to see what brain sicknesses look like, and realize that many of them can be healed or prevented," she said showing how a healthy brain differs from one that has been damaged by drug abuse.

"Its true. Alcohol and drugs kill brain cells."

The museum is tucked in behind a 300-year-old building that is now the National Neurological Science Institute hospital. It operates on a shoe-string budget.

The world's largest brain bank, the U.S.-based Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center at McLean Hospital (www.brainbank.mclean.org) has nearly 7,000 specimens. Its brains are not open to public viewing but researchers can obtain tissue samples from the federally-funded institution as long as they are qualified scientists.

George Tejada, assistant director for the Harvard brain bank who was born in Peru, said he had heard of the Lima brain museum but had never visited it.

But he said it is not the same as brain banks which specialize in the study of specific neurological disorders and diseases.

"I'll be sure to go and visit when I'm next in Lima," said Tejada.

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