Neuroscientist Gregory Berns has a closet full of brains in his lab at Emory University.
There are brains from a few species of dolphins. There are coyote brains and a Tasmanian devil brain, which Berns said is sort of the jewel of the collection -- it's the only one in North America, as far as he knows.
He pulls one in a plastic container down off the shelf.
“This is the brain of a German shepherd who I knew, who was owned by a friend of mine.” He said it's a little sad working with that brain, since he knew the animal.
He’s collecting these brains -- and looking to borrow more -- for a project he’s launching called Brain Ark, in which he scans the animals’ brains in an MRI and shares the information online.
“There’s a tremendous amount of information about human brains and how they function. There’s a lot of information on primates, like monkeys,” he said. “And then at the other end of the spectrum we know a lot about rat and mice brains because those are the typical laboratory animals that we use in research.”
But that leaves a lot of other animals out there.
“There’s roughly 5,000 mammals in between rats and humans if you look at the evolutionary tree,” he said. “We know almost nothing about how their brains are wired, or what that has to do with their environments. Or why for example, a bear’s brain makes him a bear and a dog’s brain makes him a dog.”
Berns has also worked with living animals, training dogs to sit still in MRIs. But with Brain Ark, he’s working with brains from animals that have died. He's hoping to learn more about how mammal brains evolved, what makes them unique, and what could make some susceptible to extinction.
In a recent paper, Berns compared the brains of Tasmanian devils to the brains of Tasmanian tigers, also known as thylacines, dog-like marsupials that were hunted to extinction.
“Some animals will live and some won’t,” he said. “What I’m interested in is, can we learn something from their brains that says, OK, this animal is more adaptable, and this animal is not. And it’s the ones that are not that we need to pay attention and figure out how to save their environment or find an environment that they can live in.”
For the ones that do go extinct, Berns said, then Brain Ark would hold the memory of what made those animals tick.