A cere­bral ex­pe­ri­ence in the heart of Lima

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - KENDALL HILL

The hu­man brain has an aus­tere, al­most gothic beauty. It’s not some­thing I’ve ever con­tem­plated but it’s hard to avoid in­tro­spec­tion when you’re stand­ing in a room lined wall to wall with pick­led cere­brums.

Each of these 300 float­ing or­gans, plus the 2910 oth­ers kept in stor­age at Lima’s Museo del Cere­bro, was once a sen­tient be­ing. Now they’re just brains in a mu­seum, struck down by a litany of aw­ful ill­nesses. Ev­ery jar is la­belled with the mal­ady that claimed its brain: Alzheimers; Parkin­sons; Tape­worms (cys­tis­er­co­sis); Tu­mours; Creutzfeld-Ja­cob Dis­ease. Haem­or­rhages man­i­fest as omi­nous black blots in the cere­bral cor­tex; tox­o­plas­mo­sis leaves an an­gry face im­printed on the grey mat­ter.

Museo del Cere­bro, which opens morn­ings from Mon­day to Satur­day, is a macabre but fas­ci­nat­ing place. Part of Peru’s Na­tional In­sti­tute of Neu­ro­log­i­cal Sciences, its vast col­lec­tion of brains is one of the world’s largest. Each spec­i­men be­longs to a for­mer pa­tient of the in­sti­tute, which over­sees the neu­ro­log­i­cal treat­ment through­out the coun­try and also func­tions as a spe­cial­ist hos­pi­tal. The mu­seum might seem an un­likely tourist at- trac­tion but it re­ceives 5000 visi­tors a year; the point of putting these grim relics on dis­play is to show peo­ple how easily brain dam­age can oc­cur and, in some cases, how to avoid it. “Peo­ple can see what brain dis­eases look like and re­alise that many can be pre­vented,” says neu­ropathol­o­gist Dr Diana Ri­vas, the mu­seum’s di­rec­tor.

To­day all Peru­vian med­i­cal stu­dents come to the in­sti­tute to study the neu­ropatho­log­i­cal spec­i­mens, but another main fo­cus is ed­u­cat­ing school stu­dents. Dis­plays em­pha­sise the con­se­quences of poor hy­giene, ex­ces­sive al­co­hol and drug abuse, smok­ing, and chronic dis­eases such as hy­per­ten­sion and high choles­terol.

It was one of Ri­vas’s pre­de­ces­sors, Luis Palomino, who first col­lected the brains – amassed since the in­sti­tute’s first au­topsy in 1942 – and put them on show. The in­sti­tute oc­cu­pies foun­da­tions laid in 1700 as one of Lima’s first asy­lums. “Ini­tially and un­til about 50 years ago this was an asy­lum run by the nuns of St Vin­cent de Paul,” Ri­vas says. “Many fam­i­lies aban­doned their chron­i­cally ill rel­a­tives here.”

Lo­cated in the once-pros­per­ous neigh­bour­hood of Bar­rios Al­tos and over­looked by the pas­tel-painted slums of San Cris­to­bal Moun­tain, it feels less like an in­sti­tu­tion than a place of re­li­gious pil­grim­age. There are chapels ev­ery­where, ded­i­cated to St Michael, St Vin­cent and the Vir­gin, among oth­ers. Ri­vas cites a lo­cal leg­end that con­tends Je­sus once ap­peared at the hos­pi­tal and de­creed it should be­come a cen­tre for in­cur­able dis­eases. Hence the pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with prayer. Oc­ca­sion­ally, and touch­ingly, vil­lagers make pil­grim­ages from the re­mote An­des to visit de­parted rel­a­tives. Each ex­hibit is fastidiously cat­a­logued so it’s easy to lo­cate who they’re af­ter.

“We leave the fam­ily mem­ber alone in a room with the brain in­side a bot­tle,” Ri­vas says. “I saw one man take off his hat and strike up a con­ver­sa­tion with the brain as if it were a liv­ing per­son. I think he cried a bit, too. One fam­ily has been to visit their rel­a­tive’s brain three times. I have lit­tle knowl­edge of how peo­ple wor­ship their an­ces­tors in the moun­tains, but it felt like a pow­er­ful ven­er­a­tion.” • li­maeasy.com • lan.com • ad­ven­ture­world.com

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