Studying the brain of a camel

Studying the brain of a camel

by Laurence Garey

On 25 September Dr Ulrich Wernery, Scientific Director of the Central Veterinary Research Laboratory in Dubai, gave what, for me, was one of the highlights of the Group's Tuesday evening talks, on the camel. He called it the "miracle animal", and he certainly convinced me that it is indeed just that. I am now totally converted to drinking camel's milk!

However, my interest was awakened even more nearly at the end of his talk when he showed a slide of the head of a camel that had been autopsied, a head split down the middle! That might seem a bit gruesome, but to me it was a thing of beauty. My bread and butter (at least, cow butter) is brain research so I wondered what we know about the camel's brain, that I could see in all its glory in that slide. In the discussion I asked him a question or two about it, and he made it clear that we know almost nothing about the subject at all!

After the talk I tried to see him, but he had to rush back to Dubai. However, the next day I e-mailed him, and got a reply immediately. The next time he had an autopsy I was welcome to join him and take whatever specimens I needed. In my usual morbidly skeptical frame of mind, I assumed his kind offer might be the last I heard of that, but, no, I was wrong! A few days later Ulrich's colleague, Dr Joerg Kinne, informed me that an autopsy was planned for the following week, and that I was invited. Now that really is collegiality! So, Josette and I headed for Dubai on 7 October. After the obligatory (and very welcome) drink of camel milk with the whole CVRL team, we got to work. For anyone who is interested in the scientific details of what we are trying to do, I should be pleased to give your more information. However, to avoid boring the others, suffice it to say that within 20 minutes of the animal being put down (it was necessary for good veterinary reasons) we had its brain in a fixing solution. We also took various other samples.

The whole process was photographed.

Our camel being prepared by Joerg Kinne.

Image of the camel brain.

Figure 2 shows the very beautiful brain at various stages of its dissection back in Al Ain. You can get some idea of its size from the centimetre scale (as well as from my fingers) - it weighed less than 400 grams.

Illustration of some of the brain cells (neurons) of the camel's cerebral cortex.

Figure 3 illustrates some of the brain cells (neurons) in the cerebral cortex. Each of their cell bodies (the big black blobs) is a mere few microns in diameter (ie: a few thousandths of a millimetre). My colleague, Dr Eric Mensah-Brown, is actively working on the project with me.

We are taking this project very seriously, and hope it will result in a formal collaboration between the Faculty of Medicine in Al Ain and the CVRL. We hope that the Natural History Group might want to be recognised as sponsors, too.

I have searched the literature high and low, and realise that, indeed, almost nothing is known about the camel's brain, so we hope to be a on the edge of launching a new venture for our Faculty and for the neuroscience world.

Ulrich Wernery has expressed his willingness to invite a group of 15 or so of us back to his lab next January, maybe in conjunction with a visit to the nearby camel races. I shall have more details of the timing of this a bit later.

So, thanks to Brien and the committee for organising Ulrich's talk, and to him and his team for being so willing to collaborate on this scientific project.


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