It’s the largest collection of brains in the world. No, not Harvard University, but a small room at McLean Hospital where row upon row of plain metal shelves with Tupperware containers that hold more than 5,000 brains.
Located in Belmont, the hospital is a psychiatric teaching facility of Harvard Medical School. Neuroscientists who want to study how things go wrong with a brain need as many samples as they can get of brains from people with illnesses such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and severe depression.
“Collecting more than 5,000 brains represents 24 years of commitment and active involvement by donors and their families who have suffered with brain disorders,” notes Francine Benes, director of the brain bank.
While working on a master’s degree at Creedmoor State Hospital in New York, Benes first saw how a disease like schizophrenia can break down a person’s thinking, emotions, and behavior. Later, in medical school, she got the idea that symptoms such as illogical thinking might be understood by studying miswired brain circuits. Several professors told her she would be wasting her talents specializing in psychiatry, but she went onto a residency and then a position at McLean. Benes is now the only female full professor of psychiatry specializing in neuroscience at Harvard Medical School.
The National Institute of Mental Health thinks enough of her work on schizophrenia and manic-depressive disorder to award her a $4 million grant to carry on 10 years of research.
Researchers dissect brains in the bank to find answers to questions about diseases, answers that can play a major role in developing better treatments. The bank also distributes thousands of samples cut from the banked brains to other researchers all over the world.
In order to do this work effectively, neuroscientists collect normal as well as diseased brains. “Nondiseased tissues are needed because they are absolutely necessary to use as a benchmark, or comparison,” Benes says. She points out that such donations are compatible with those of eyes, skin, bone, and heart valves. They don’t interfere with funeral arrangements or violate the beliefs of most religions.
If you are interested in making a donation, call 1-800-brainba (272-4622). If you are just interested in what’s going on, contact www.brainbank.mclean.org.