Mysterious past

9. Why the past is always a mystery?

Interview statement:

“A personal final question: you were born in 1962. Back then, during your studies, would you have thought that one day you would be able to “zoom in” on the world of the brain?

There has indeed been an incredible change since my student days, when I was already interested in image analysis to better understand the architecture of nerve tissue and its functions. At that time, we had an image analysis system from Leitz at the institute that made it possible to quantify and statistically describe the architecture of nerve cells. Back then, this seemed to me the right way to understand the organizing principles of the brain, and this research shaped my further path.” (Emphasis is mine.)

My question: Should we all better acknowledge the role of our teachers?

My answer: It has long ago ceased to amaze me, why many of the graduates of Soviet Institutes and Universities, including those who defended dissertations in the Soviet Union, are trying to hide their past while working in the USA. Probably, this is true for Germany as well. This is particularly disturbing when the holders of such diplomas should be proud of them. This is especially true in case of Moscow Institute of Brain, about which, apparently, Prof. Amunts tries to tell. So, I shell tell about it instead.

Perhaps, it would be interesting to see how “image analysis system from Leitz” looks like. Below is the image (not a very good one, sorry) of this device, which was used in my group of “Quantitative microscopy” in in the laboratory of Clinical Neuroanatomy of the Institute of Psychiatry, which “made it possible to quantify and statistically describe the architecture of nerve cells”. For this device the first automatic image processing technology of profile measuring of human cortex was developed [5,6], and here we collected data for our research, including our dissertations (Fig 8).

EPSON scanner image

Fig. 8: Automatic microscopy  image processing system TAS (Leitz, Wetzlar, Germany), as it was installed in the Laboratory of Clinical Neuroanatomy of the Institute of Psychiatry, in Moscow, 1986-1989. Left to right: image monitor with the light pen, VT-100 display (for PDP-11/03 computer), automatic microscope “Orthoplan” with TV-camera and XYZ scanning stage. Far right – device console for functions control.

To save space, I would like to address the interesting reader to my prior post (“The story of MCG“), where some information about history of Moscow Brain Institute was provided. Here I would like to mention that to my deepest regret it does not exist anymore. Despite truly revolutionary history, or, perhaps, because of it, it was destroyed during collapse of the Soviet Union. So, the future of its unique collection of brains of famous, talented and even genial people is unknown. It is such a shame, that serially cut and stained sections of so many brains of very well known and “cognitively described” people are not used in modern cytoarchitectonic studies.

Still, when I was working there, several people greatly influenced my understanding of cytoarchitectonics and how it should be studied. The first is professor Samuil Blinkov. His book with I. Glezer “Human brain in tables and figures” [7] made history in quantitative neuroanatomy and cytoarchitecture, as it summarized data collected for many years of quantitative research of human brain during pre-computerized era in the World between mid-1800’s and 1960’s.  I was fortunate enough to know him personally, and he was an “opponent” (or disputant, as we can translate it to English) during my Ph.D. thesis defense. Among other things, he was one of the inventors of the first in the USSR (and possibly in the world) automated television microscope, developed for brain research in Boiphisical Institute of Academy of Medical Sciences in Pushino.

Another important person was Dr. Med. Sciences Vilen Kesarev, who was the director of the Laboratory of Brain Cytoarchitectonic between 1980 and 1987(?). He was a pioneer of computer-assisted cytoarchitectonic research, and was fist to develop methods of quantitative assessment of the laminar and columnar structure of human neocortex using Mathematical Morphology [8,9,10]. He convinced the director of the Institute to purchase the first in the Soviet Union automatic texture analysis system TAS from Ernst Leitz Gmbx. He was also very interested in evolution of the brain and comparative neuroanatomy, and conducted important research of dolphin’s brain [9]. Dr. Kesarev’s untimely death was a huge loss for the Institute, and my personal loss as well.

Dr. Kesarev possessed an amazing gift to express his ideas with inspiration and amazing enthusiasm. In his office, you could sit for hours and listen to his improvised lectures, which, of course, were devoted to one question only : how to objectively describe the structure of the cortex and build computerized cortical map. He was the first to show the bias of the visual description of structure, and arbitrary nature of morphological classification of the cortical areas. Computers, which were just started to enter scientific practice and had very modest power by modern standards. We got an impression, which was very naive indeed, that the possibilities of image processing in cytoarchitectural research are completely unlimited. The only problem necessary to solve was how to choose the right parameters for measurements. Then it seemed to us that all questions would disappear and the secrets of the brain would fall at our feet. Unfortunately, even today this naive opinion is very widespread, but it concerns new trends in technology, for example – artificial intelligence.

The person I would like to mention is professor Tatiana Leontovich, who was director of the Laboratory of Neuronal Structure from 1973 to 2002. As a student of prof. Grigorij Poliakov, who created a unique classification system of neurons in human cortex [11], she continued his research creating classification of neurons in basal ganglia. She extended Poliakov’s ideas to base the classification upon three-dimensional structure of neuronal dendritic trees [12]. She was a pioneer of computer reconstruction of dendrites of human neurons in 3D using interactive computerized microscope, designed according to her specifications by Ernst Leitz Wtzlar, Gmbx. The brand name of the system was “Orthoplan-3D”. Interestingly, Tatiana Leontovich was the daughter of academician M.A. Leontovich, who was a member of Moscow Human Rights group, and was rather close to Andrey Sacharov, actively helping him in his fight for human rights in USSR.

I could continue this list, but not to abuse attention of my audience I have to stop and make a confession: finally I agree with prof. Amunts. The environments of Moscow Brain Institute as well as of the Institute of Clinical Psychiatry were rather unique, as well as very productive.  Additionally,  high quality equipment, mainly German and American, was available. So, the Institute was indeed capable to shape the future research of those who were fortunate enough to learn and had training there.

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