150 Brains Lost After Freezer Malfunctions At Harvard Hospital

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File photo of human brain. (credit: MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images)

File photo of human brain. (credit: MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images)

BELMONT, Mass. (CBS Connecticut/AP) — One hundred fifty frozen brains used in autism studies were lost after a freezer malfunctioned at a Harvard-affiliated hospital.

The 150 brains damaged were one-third of the world’s largest brain collection. The Boston Globe reports that the brains turned dark from decay at McLean Hospital.

The director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center said the loss was “devastating,” particularly in light of the increasing demand for brain samples among scientists searching for the cause of autism and potential treatments.

“Over the last 10 years, the autism tissue program has been working very hard to get the autism community to understand the importance of brain donation,” Dr. Francine Benes said. Now many of those samples have been compromised.

The freezer failed sometime late last month at the center, which is housed at McLean Hospital in the Boston suburb of Belmont. At least 54 samples earmarked for autism research were harmed.

However, an initial review indicates that the DNA in the samples is intact and can still be used for genetic research. It’s unclear, however, whether the samples could be used for the full range of neuroscience needs.

Thirty-two of the brains had been cut in half, with one side placed in a formaldehyde solution and the other placed in the freezer. The samples in the solution remain available for all research projects, the hospital said.

The frozen tissue samples are normally maintained at about minus 80 degrees Celsius, but the temperature had reached about 7 degrees – the temperature of a common refrigerator – when the failure was discovered, Benes said.

That means an important chemical cousin of DNA called RNA was destroyed, she said.

Geri Dawson, chief science officer for Autism Speaks, says they do not know the level of impact losing the brains will have on autism research.

“Although this event will affect the availability of tissue for future research, we cannot yet determine the level of impact, but we are confident that we can maintain the momentum of scientific studies based on brain tissue,” Dawson said on the Autism Speaks website.

The Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center is the largest and oldest federally funded “brain bank” in the United States. It provides thousands of postmortem brain tissue samples annually to researchers across the nation.

(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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