The Massachusetts Institute of Technology brain sciences department and, separately, a group of some 200 neuroscientists from around the world have written letters to The New York Times claiming that a book excerpt in the newspaper’s Sunday magazine this week contains important errors, misinterpretations of scientific disputes, and unfair characterizations of an MIT neuroscientist who did groundbreaking research on human memory.
In particular, the excerpt contains a 36-volley verbatim exchange between author Luke Dittrich and MIT’s Suzanne Corkin in which she says that key documents from historic experiments were “shredded.” “Most of it has gone, is in the trash, was shredded,” Corkin is quoted as telling Dittrich before she died in May, explaining, “there’s no place to preserve it.”
Destroying files related to historic scientific research would raise eyebrows, but Corkin’s colleagues say it never happened.
“We believe that no records were destroyed and, to the contrary, that professor Corkin worked in her final days to organize and preserve all records,” said the letter that Dr. James DiCarlo, head of the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, sent to the Times late Tuesday. Even as Corkin fought advanced liver cancer, he wrote, “she instructed her assistant to continue to organize, label, and maintain all records” related to the research, and “the records currently remain within our department.”
It is highly unusual for so many prominent scientists to take a newspaper to task over a book excerpt, especially when they do not also contact the publisher (Random House). One scientist criticizing the Times said they hadn’t thought of that. The scientists also complain that the newspaper did not fact-check the excerpt. In a statement, however, a spokesperson for the paper said the excerpt “was thoroughly vetted and fact-checked by the [Sunday] magazine’s staff.”
The book, “Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets,” whose official publication date was also Tuesday, is notable for Dittrich’s connection to the most famous brain patient ever studied: H.M., as he is known in scientific publications (his full name, Henry Molaison, was revealed after his death in 2008).
Experimental surgery in 1953 to treat Molaison’s epilepsy had removed or destroyed his right and left hippocampus, his right and left amygdala, and other structures. That left him with no ability to form memories, allowing scientists to make groundbreaking discoveries about how human memory works. The surgeon was Dittrich’s grandfather, and much of the book is an impassioned discussion of the moral complexities of the surgery.
The Times excerpt focused on Corkin. Although much of the groundbreaking work on H.M. was done by Brenda Milner at McGill University in Montreal, Corkin (Milner’s graduate student) eventually took over as the lead scientist studying H.M., which involved giving him memory and other tests.
Dittrich (who published a point-by-point rebuttal to the MIT criticisms on Medium on Wednesday) quoted a lengthy exchange with Corkin in which she seems almost smug about destroying key data sheets and other records of her work on H.M. The new Medium post includes the audio file of that exchange. MIT’s DiCarlo said he and two MIT colleagues who investigated the supposed destruction “cannot explain why professor Corkin made the comments reported in the article.” But they hypothesize that there were “tensions” between her and Dittrich “because she had turned down his request to examine Mr. Molaison’s confidential medical and research records.”
In fact, said MIT neuroscientist John Gabrieli, “nothing was shredded or destroyed.” Corkin’s assistant, he said, “was strictly instructed to preserve everything.” Although there is no way to say definitively that every single document was preserved, said Gabrieli, “there is a whole room here filled with those files.”
Dittrich said that if the supposedly shredded data still exist, “I would like to know whether MIT intends to index it and make it available to the public or other researchers.”
An equally incendiary claim in the book excerpt is that Corkin tried to suppress the discovery, by a scientist who studied H.M.’s brain after death, of a previously unknown lesion. Virtually all of the science built from H.M.’s memory loss held that it was the result of the surgery that removed his hippocampus. But neuroanatomist Jacopo Annese, then at the University of California, San Diego, acquired H.M.’s brain from Corkin soon after his death. He cut it into thousands of wafer-thin slices and studied it in 3-D detail, discovering the lesion in the frontal cortex.
According to “Patient H.M.,” Corkin tried to downplay the significance of the discovery and stop publication of the paper reporting it, for fear that the abnormality in a region of the brain far from the destroyed hippocampus —supposedly the source of H.M.’s amnesia — would muddy the orthodoxy on how human memory worked. In the end, Annese listed her as the paper’s senior author, and the frontal lesion was reported prominently.
“It’s there,” said Gabrieli. “And in an interview after [the paper’s] publication, she highlights it.” In a 2014 interview, Corkin said that the cause and the timing of the frontal lesion was unknown, and that it was “unclear whether this lesion had any consequence for H.M.’s behavior.” “Patient H.M.” recounts Corkin’s trying, in notes to Annese, to delete all references to the frontal lesion, saying it did not appear on MRIs when H.M. was alive, and “any consideration of it would be highly misleading.”
A second letter to the Times, from just over 200 brain scientists, is less detailed. It is signed by some of the leading lights of neuroscience, from as far away as New Zealand, including Randy Buckner of Harvard; Adele Diamond of the University of British Columbia; Adam Gazzaley of the University of California, San Francisco; Eleanor Maguire of University College London; Henry Roediger of Washington University; Daniel Schacter of Harvard; and Scott Small of Columbia University.
The signers say they are “disturbed” by a book excerpt, saying it describes Corkin’s research “in what we believe are biased and misleading ways.” Any hint that she did not behave with scientific integrity, they write, is “contrary to everything we have known about her as a scientist, colleague, and friend.”
This story was updated on Wednesday with responses from the New York Times and Dittrich.