Harvard Brain Bank Faces Shortage of "Normal" Brains

August 28, 2003

There is a shortage of "normal" brains at the Harvard brain bank, scientists say.

The bank, officially known as the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center and located at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, is the world's largest brain repository, distributing tissue to neuroscientists in the United States and internationally for research.

The federally funded brain bank keeps 3,000 brains—most from people who suffered from neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's, Huntington's and Alzheimer's, and neuropsychiatric disorders like schizophrenia and manic depression.

But the nature of research requires that scientists need "normal" brains, too, from healthy people of all ages. Neurological disease can strike at any age. For example, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, can occur in the late teens and early 20s. Huntington's afflicts adults mainly between the ages of 35 and 65; Alzheimer's, people 65 and older.

Since its founding in 1978, the bank has collected almost 6,000 brains. Every year it receives about 240 diseased brains but only 30 normal brains. The challenge is to encourage healthy people to consider brain donation, according to Francine Benes, a professor of neuroscience at Harvard Medical School in Boston and the bank's director.

"The problem is that families with members who have a brain disease are working with private foundations and already thinking about brain donation and research and so it is easier to reach out to them," says Benes. "But there is no foundation that advocates for a normal brain."

What's An Ideal Brain?

The ideal normal brain, according to Benes, comes from an individual without a history of head trauma, seizure, dementia, delirium, or drug or alcohol abuse. This normal tissue serves as a basis for comparison.

Brain tissue is essential to research. Techniques like functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) or Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan the brains of living people, watching the brain at work. But fMRI and PET can't peer into nerve cells.

Understanding the chemistry of cells in diseased regions of the brain—what proteins are present, which genes are active—can help scientists determine what went wrong, and develop diagnostic tests and treatments.

To identify the chemical calling card of disease, scientists need a supply of fresh brains.

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