Harvard University’s brain bank at McLean Hospital in Belmont,Massachusetts, had frozen 147 brains for research purposes. They were damaged in late May 2012 for three to four days, in a freezer malfunction. The distressing fact is that 53 or one-third of those brains had been derived from rare, diseased autistic persons. This will certainly slow Autism research in particular, since the rise in Autism cases has been observed only in recent decades and the reason for this spike is not understood. About 1 in 100 children born today in the developed world may be diagnosed with Autism spectrum disorder with the percentage observed to be higher in boys than girls. These frozen autistic brains may have held a clue. They may have provided a direction for future autism research direction. They may have helped autism researchers suggest current, preventive measures faster, and sooner so that as a society we can help prevent any child in the future to be burdened with this “mind fogging, communication disabling” brain condition.
The loss of these brains to the researchers is a major step back for the public health of a developed country like USA or Sweden. Somali immigrants from Somalia, Africa to USA and Sweden have noticed that autism has been diagnosed only in the Somali children born in USA or Sweden but not in Somalia. They insist it has never been observed in the Somali children born in Somalia (Read here). Recently, researchers have begun to look at what environmental or exogenous conditions, in addition to perhaps a genetic predisposition could cause a child to develop the Autism Spectrum Disorder. Such research teams are being led by CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden and the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Dr. Susan Hyman, the chair of the Autism Subcommittee of the American Academy of Pediatrics. To better understand what they do not know, to identify the risk factors, to pinpoint why boys are five times more likely than girls and to better prevent Autism are some of the goals of the researchers (Read here May 29, 2012 interview by pbs.org).
The NICHD Brain and Tissue Bank for Developmental Disorders at the University of Maryland and the Harvard center at McLean are the only repositories in the US that distribute autism brain tissue to researchers around the world. Autism brain donors are in short supply.
To read the scientific explanation and implication of the loss of the frozen brains click on this link for the premier blog by nature.com on June 11, 2012. What is perplexing is that both the main alarm and the back up alarm to monitor the temperature of the freezer failed. This article discusses in detail the human and technological errors that may have caused such a major loss. Apparently, all the frozen brains had been transferred to a single freezer instead of the normal 24 freezers because of a special visit by the Autism tissue program in preparation for distribution to brain sample requests by autism researchers.
Fortunately, the DNA in these brains will probably be intact into the infinite future. However, the RNA and protein matter by nature is very fragile and was destroyed, and lost to researchers. It is a public loss.
G proteins – the connector proteins that try to prevent Autism Spectrum Disorder
List of Autism events in USA – walk or speak for Autism
Preclinical studies: Autism compound KM-391 significantly decreased plasticity of brains and increased serotoninlevels
Half of each brain preserved in formaldehyde available for research purposes by Martina’s blog
Call for more oversight to Freezer safety and attention by Jeff Evans of Clinical Neurology News
Brain samples from people who had died and who had had conditions such as autism, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, or schizophrenia by Lifescience Log