Brain-filled Harvard freezer fails, setting autism research back a decade

By David Ferguson
Tuesday, June 12, 2012 11:23 EDT
google plus icon
Brain in jar via Shutterstock
  • Print Friendly and PDF
  • Email this page

A malfunctioning freezer at Harvard-affiliated MacLean Hospital has led to the loss of one of the largest brain archives in the world and set autism research back at least ten years, according to the Boston Globe.  The freezer, which was supposed to be backed up by two alarms, failed in late May, and was only discovered after about three days, judging by the brains’ stage of decay.

The MacLean facility is one of 24 that make up the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center.  When Assistant Director George Tejada opened the freezer door on May 31 and didn’t feel the normal blast of freezing cold air (the freezer is normally kept at minus-80 degrees Celsius), it was immediately apparent that something was wrong.

Inside the so-called Freezer U, the 150 brains had thawed and turned dark with decay.  While the freezer’s external thermostat said that the temperature inside was minus-79 C, in fact the temperature was closer to 7 degrees, the same as an average household refrigerator.

Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center director Dr. Francine Benes told the Globe that the accident is a disaster to the brain archive and to current research on autism and other brain disorders.

“This was a priceless collection,” said Benes, ““You can’t express its value in dollar amounts.”

The failure of the thermostat and both alarm systems amounts to a kind of perfect storm.  The director is heading one of two internal investigations into the accident and says that she cannot rule out foul play.

The brains, about a third of which were autism brains, were owned by the advocacy organization Autism Speaks.  They had already proven invaluable to the work of Dr. Carlos Pardo, who established in 2004 that autism involves not just the brain but the immune system.  The collection, said Pardo, has yielded “very, very important information that allows us to have a better understanding of what autism is, as well as the contribution of environmental and immune factors.  The benefit has been great.”

Tissue samples in the freezer included brains from people who died of neurological conditions like Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s, as well as the brains of people who were diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  The Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center is the nation’s largest and oldest federally funded brain bank.  It has been storing brains for research for around 35 years.

MacLean has set up a hotline for people who may be concerned about brain samples donated by loved ones or friends, 1-877-733-4634.  If you would like to donate a brain, call 1-800-272-4622.

(image via Shutterstock)

David Ferguson
David Ferguson
David Ferguson is an editor at Raw Story. He was previously writer and radio producer in Athens, Georgia, hosting two shows for Georgia Public Broadcasting and blogging at Firedoglake.com and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book.
By commenting, you agree to our terms of service
and to abide by our commenting policy.