From James J. DiCarlo MD, PhD
Peter de Florez Professor of Neuroscience
Head, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences
Investigator, McGovern Institute for Brain Research
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
On August 9, 2016, I released a public statement rebutting three allegations made about Professor Suzanne Corkin in the New York Times Magazine article, “The Brain that Couldn’t Remember,” by Mr. Luke Dittrich and that are reiterated in the book “Patient H.M.” I fully stand by that earlier statement and it remains on our public web site. However, I here share additional information that further rebuts the allegations against Professor Corkin.
1. Allegation that research records were or would be destroyed or shredded. The evidence argues that this allegation is false.
Mr. Dittrich recorded an interview with Professor Corkin in which she says that she shredded H.M.-related material. But at the end of the interview, Professor Corkin says, “We kept the H.M. stuff” (this statement was in the recording posted by Mr. Dittrich but not in the transcript he included in the article). Her last statement is consistent with the voluminous research records that have actually been maintained. A former member of Professor Corkin’s laboratory, highly familiar with the H.M. documents, has reviewed photographs of the many file drawer contents and reported that all the files appear to still be there. Professor Corkin’s assistant throughout this period (before and during her illness) reports that she was instructed to carefully maintain all records. All the evidence we were able to find, from those who worked with Professor Corkin and from reviewing the actual filing cabinets filled with data from research with Henry Molaison, indicates that these records were maintained and not destroyed.
Given Professor Corkin’s conflicting statements in the recorded interview, it is regrettable that no one at the New York Times ever asked anyone at MIT about the supposed shredding. The writer did contact MIT’s news office—but with an unreasonable two-hour deadline, and long after his book had already gone to press.
2. Allegation that Professor Corkin attempted to suppress the finding of an additional injury in left orbitofrontal cortex. The evidence argues that this allegation is false.
The apparent source of the data suppression allegation was the one collaborator whose relationship to Professor Corkin was marred by conflict. Professor Corkin’s other collaborators on this work have stated unequivocally that she made no attempt to suppress data during the process of writing up the papers or afterward. We have interviewed many other scientists involved in the project, and all confirm that the allegations about attempted suppression of a finding are incorrect. To the contrary, Professor Corkin took a highly professional and timely approach to interpreting the finding and reporting it prominently in scientific and public communications.
It is unfortunate that neither Mr. Dittrich nor the New York Times Magazine reported interviewing the many other, objective sources involved in this research and relied, apparently, on a single source of information from a conflicted collaborator.
Mr. Dittrich’s article implies that the presence of the frontal-lobe injury would fundamentally alter the interpretation of prior findings with Henry Molaison, and that it is for this reason that its presence was supposedly suppressed. This is incorrect given the widely known and widely accepted science of the field. The initial, seminal publications indicated, for the first time, that bilateral resection of the medial temporal lobes causes an inability to form memories for new events or facts, without affecting short-term memory on the order of seconds, general intelligence, or the ability to learn certain skills. These core findings no longer depend on the particularities of Henry Molaison’s brain, because this role of the medial temporal lobe in memory has been validated and extended in hundreds of publications of research with other patients, with more precisely controlled animal studies, and with noninvasive neuroimaging. Although questions and debates continue about more detailed characterizations of medial temporal lobe functions, the core findings are settled science. Indeed, since the two publications reporting the additional small, unilateral frontal-lobe injury (Nature Communications, 2014 and Hippocampus 2014), it is noteworthy that neuroscientists have not called for any revision of the interpretation of the core findings with Henry Molaison because those findings are so widely replicated. When Henry Molaison participated in many experiments with a genial enthusiasm, he often said, “What is learned from me will help others.” Thanks to his gracious participation in research, and the work of many scientists, including Professor Corkin, what has been learned still stands.
It is regrettable that neither Mr. Dittrich nor the New York Times Magazine reported interviewing leading neuroscientists in the field to ask whether the report of a frontal-lobe injury altered interpretation of the prior publications involving Henry Molaison.
3. Allegation that Professor Corkin no longer wanted the brain stored at UCSD was because she was unhappy about discovery of a second lesion. The evidence argues that this allegation is false.
The transfer of H.M.’s brain to UC Davis had nothing to do with efforts to suppress findings, but was instead done in the sprit of open science — to facilitate research by any interested neuroscientists.
H.M. donated his brain to MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) for the purpose of scientific research. MIT and MGH transferred custody to UCSD so that sectioning could be performed and the tissue could be shared with the scientific community for research purposes. The dispute that arose was about the sharing of the tissue and images of the sectioned brain with the scientific community.
MIT, MGH, and UCSD finally resolved the issue amicably by agreeing that the brain be transferred to the custody of a leading brain science researcher at UC Davis.
The three institutions further agreed that a peer committee of scientists from five different institutions would be in charge of distribution of the brain tissue for research. The goal was to facilitate scientific research and public access. Under the terms of this agreement, MIT and MGH have no greater rights to access the brain than any other institution, and the peer committee facilitates and ensures access to the brain tissues and images by the wider research community.
4. Allegation that there was something inappropriate in the selection of Henry Molaison’s guardian. We know of no evidence to support this allegation.
In her book “Permanent Present Tense” (2013), Professor Corkin describes precisely the provenance of Mr. Molaison’s guardianship (page 201).
Briefly, in 1974 Mr. Molaison and his mother (who was in failing health; his father was deceased) moved in with Lillian Herrick, whose first husband was related to Mr. Molaison’s mother. Mrs. Herrick is described as caring for Mr. Molaison until 1980, when she was diagnosed with advanced cancer, and Mr. Molaison was admitted to a nursing home founded by her brother.
In 1991, the Probate Court in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, appointed Mrs. Herrick’s son, Tom Mooney, as Mr. Molaison’s conservator. (Mr. Mooney is referred to as “Mr. M” in the book because of his desire for privacy.) This family took an active interest in helping Mr. Molaison and his mother, and was able to help place him in the nursing home that took care of him.
Mr. Dittrich provides no evidence that anything untoward occurred, and we are not aware of anything untoward in this process. Mr. Dittrich identifies some individuals who were genetically closer to Mr. Molaison than Mrs. Herrick or her son, but it is our understanding that it was Mrs. Herrick and her son Tom Mooney who took in Mr. Molaison and his mother, and took care of Mr. Molaison for many years. Mr. Mooney was appointed conservator by the local court after a valid legal process, which included providing notice of a hearing and appointment of counsel to Mr. Molaison.
Over the last week, we have examined all the evidence we could find about these proceedings, and found nothing inappropriate or contrary to the best interests of Henry Molaison.
About the Author
The Miller Lab uses experimental and theoretical approaches to study the neural basis of the high-level cognitive functions that underlie complex goal-directed behavior. ekmillerlab.mit.edu