A freezer malfunction at Harvard’s McLean Hospital has damaged about a third of the world’s biggest collection of autism brain samples, potentially setting back research by as much as a decade.
“This was a priceless collection,” director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, Dr Francis Benes, told Boston.com. “You can’t express its value in dollar amounts.”
The freezer housed brains that belonged to people who had some kind of neurological or psychiatric condition, such as Alzheimer’s or bipolar disorder, as well as autism. It was usually kept at -80C. It was supposed to be protected by two alarms, and staff checked a thermostat on the outside twice a day. However, neither alarm went off and the temperature was giving a normal reading. The problem wasn’t discovered until someone opened the door and didn’t feel any cold air. Though the thermostat claimed it was the right climate inside, it was actually more like 6C, the same temp as a typical refrigerator. What’s even worse is that the condition of the brains indicate the freezer had been off for about three days. That was enough time for 150 brains to thaw out and turn dark from decay.
More than 50 were owned by advocacy and research organisation Autism Speaks. They were a part of the Autism Tissue Program, donated by the families of kids and young adults who had suffered from the disease. This brain library is important because nearly 1 in 88 kids in the US have autism, but the cause is still somewhat of a mystery.
The good news is affected brains aren’t entirely unusable — 32 of them have been divided, half returned to freezers, and half placed in a preservative called formalin. While the preserved brains can still be used for research, the information they’ll give is different than if they were still frozen. That said, they might still be effective for genetic study. But it’s going to take a long time to rebuild the collection — Harvard’s brain bank had been gathering samples for about 20 years. [Boston.com]
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