NEW YORK - A freezer failure at a Harvard University research building has impeded scientific advances about mental disorders, according to a New York Times article this week.
Harvard scientists admitted that a freezer storing human brains donated for research malfunctioned, putting a roadblock on the path to understand how disorders, such as autism, develop and affect daily life.
About 150 brains had been kept at the facility. The setback is most devastating for autism researchers because of the scarcity of autopsied brains from younger people with a well-documented medical history. Harvard still has other brains that are being used for autism research, but fewer brains limits the possible uses for them in the laboratory. Not as much studying can be done on a smaller research data set.
“There’s just no question that human tissue is the gold standard for research,” Dr. Gerald D. Fischbach, a professor emeritus at Columbia, told the New York Times. “You absolutely need it to answer some very basic questions.”
Autism spectrum disorders are rare in that they affect the brains of young people, whereas other diseases such as Alzheimer’s do not set in until an advanced age. Because of the nature of the disorder, scientists believe they can gain the most information from the brains of people who died young, but often donating a loved one’s brain for research is not on the mind of grieving family and friends who often are taken by surprise by an unforeseen death.
The process is not a simple one. Once a brain is donated, it must carefully be transported to a research facility where chemicals and extremely cold temperatures preserve human tissue. Researchers painstakingly determine the mental state of the person whose brain has been donated by interviewing family and friends. If a brain is not frozen within 24 hours, it can be lost, and sometimes it’s unclear if a child had autism at all.
As it becomes clearer that autism research has a long road in its future, more families are making the decision to donate in the shadow of great loss. Harvard and a handful of other research institutes across the country are trekking through the struggles of compromised human tissue in order to gain answers.
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