Every year, thousands of Americans donate their brains to science. Dara Bramson‘s grandmother will be one of them. Since Bramson was a child, her grandmother Marge Pearlson has carried a plastic replica brain in her purse as a prop and conversation starter. With Pearlson now at an age where her donation time is approaching, Bramson has been wondering: how does the donation process worked, and where does grandmother’s brain end and her identity begin? For The Atlantic, she visited the University of Miami’s Brain Endowment Bank to find out.

Walking the halls of Miami’s Brain Endowment Bank, I was introduced to researchers and peered into a microscope at Alzheimer’s tissue. I wondered what people and which spaces would encounter my grandmother’s brain. I struggled—still—to reduce her to tissue on a slide. I wanted to ask the researchers if they can call tissue inanimate with conviction.

At one point, the bank’s office manager plopped a thick folder on a desk in front of me. This was my grandmother’s file—a collection of medical records as well as letters, photographs, and invitations that my grandmother shared with the bank to keep them informed about her life over the years. The office manager called the file impressive, wagging another thin manila folder, the norm for most donors.

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