Colin Holmes' Brain Is Famous For Being "Average"

When you see a brain scan in a textbook or a scientific study, do you ever wonder who that brain belongs to? Statistically, it probably belongs to a man named Colin Holmes. His brain has graced the pages of more than 800 scientific papers, but most of those authors don't even know his name. They just call his brain "Colin 27," or sometimes simply "Average Colin."

Colin brain atlases

If You Could Read My Mind

As a graduate student at the Montreal Neurological Institute, Colin Holmes was dismayed by the low quality of the brain images he had to work with. "As I began postdoctoral studies in the early '90s, I made the transition from working on microscopic study of brain slices to MRI scans of living subjects, and I was struck by how much lower-resolution the scans of living people were," he told Scientific Computing. "And for good reason: high-resolution studies require absolute immobility for hours, a luxury we can never have with live subjects." But Holmes realized that you might be able to approximate that resolution by combining many scans from a single live brain — and he was up to the challenge.

These days, a high-quality MRI takes as little as 15 minutes, but in 1993, it was a much bigger to-do. The slightest movement could ruin an MRI surprisingly easily, so you can imagine how tedious Holmes's task was: he had to lie perfectly still as the machine took 27 scans of his brain. When it was all over, he aligned the scans to create one high-resolution image, then co-authored a paper about his achievement.

Brain Scanners Anonymous

How did his brain get so popular? There wasn't anything special about it, after all, aside from the distinct quality of the image. It all started with an English neurologist studying the brain scan of a patient who had suffered a stroke. He compared that scan against Holmes' image to see which part of his patient's brain had been affected. Soon, other researchers were using the image for their research, from studies about personality and empathy to papers on memory and speech comprehension. As of the writing of this article, there are 836 studies that use that original image.

But few of those researchers give the owner of the brain a second thought. To them, it's just "Colin 27," named for the 27 scans that comprise it, or just "Average Colin." Holmes is fine with that. "I'm not a promotional person," he told STAT.

Colin Holmes' Famous Brain

Written by Ashley Hamer September 8, 2017

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