Published On: Fri, Jul 22nd, 2016

Lab Lament: If We Only Had Some Brains

Researchers seek donors

Lindsay Kalter Friday, July 22, 2016

Credit: Faith Ninivaggi

NO-BRAINER: Dr. Sabina Berretta, scientific director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, and Dr. Wilson Woo, medical director, worry at the dearth of healthy brain donors for research.

The brain bank at Belmont’s McLean Hospital is facing a dire shortage of healthy gray matter — receiving just one nondiseased brain donation in nearly a year — and scientists say the lack of specimens threatens to stymie research for critical diseases such as Alzheimer’s and ALS.

“It is a very big shortage, and in fact it is a pretty big problem for us,” said Dr. Sabina Berretta, the brain bank’s scientific director. “There is a need for healthy brains with no known brain disorders to understand the changes that occur in the brain of anyone with a brain disorder, whether you’re studying Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or schizophrenia or depression.”

The Harvard-affiliated bank collects and distributes brain specimens to research labs both nationally and across the globe for the study of severe psychiatric and neurological diseases.

About 5,000 samples of brain are now being housed there, some frozen and others preserved in formaldehyde.

It has received 99 donations since September 2015 — and 98 were afflicted with medical conditions.

Of those brains, 18 were from Parkinson’s patients. Alzheimer’s and Lewy Body Dementia — the two most common types of progressive dementia — account for 18 combined.

But unlocking the mysteries of an Alzheimer’s brain’s shriveled cerebral cortex is not possible without healthy specimens for comparison, Berretta said. Ideally, half the donated brains should be healthy.

But when people think of organ donation, they aim to save the life of a dying person, said psychiatrist and schizophrenia researcher Dr. Robert McCullumsmith, a professor at the University of Cincinnati School of Medicine.

“You can think of it,” he said, “as a really slow way to save lives.”

Many people have checked the back of their driver’s licenses to indicate their donor status, but that applies only to organ transplants. It doesn’t cover the donations of cadaver brains to research.

“For example, all these high-profile football players want to donate their brains to science and that’s fantastic,” McCullumsmith said. “But it’s just as important to have nonconcussed brains to compare them to. Or we’ve got nothing.”

Although the increase in opioid overdoses reportedly has led to a surge in organ transplant donations, many banks are unable to accept brains from drug addicts because of research funding restrictions.

She said some donations have had to be turned away for that reason alone.

McLean is not funded by the National Institutes of Health’s drug addiction arm, she said. It is supported by the institute’s mental health and neurological disorders programs.

Those who want to donate can visit the brain bank’s website at



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