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When the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center (HBTRC) at McLean receives a brain donation, with permission, staff comb through the donor’s medical records to glean critical information. It’s a painstaking and manual process, but now, thanks to a million-dollar endowment from The Manton Foundation, the task will be far more efficient. Part of the gift will be used to purchase technology that “reads” the text of medical records—such as descriptions of medication regimens, severity of symptoms, difficulty with activities of daily living—and translates it into quantifiable data.
“Apart from being the largest we’ve ever received, this gift is significant because it will enable innovations that directly advance research on brain disorders,” said Sabina Berretta, MD, scientific director of the HBTRC, known as the McLean “Brain Bank.” “This type of analysis of medical records has not yet been used in postmortem brain research. It will enable scientists to better understand how changes they see in the brain relate to particular symptoms the donor experienced.”
The foundation’s gift will also help Dr. Berretta’s team get to know donors while they’re still alive by surveying them every other year about their health and cognitive function. Between the intelligence gathered from medical records and this new longitudinal data, investigators will have a treasure trove of information to complement the brain tissue. And, thanks to The Manton Foundation, the Brain Bank will be able to improve how it preserves brains by using newer, state-of-the-art methods.
Founded in 1978, the HBTRC collects and distributes brain tissue samples—healthy and diseased—to investigators around the world who study illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. The repository, which has collected approximately 9,000 brains over the past three decades, has always struggled to keep pace with tissue requests. Demand has increased by more than 30% in the past five years alone, due in part to new methodologies that have made it easier for molecular biologists to study brain tissue, explained Dr. Berretta, who also directs McLean’s Translational Neuroscience Laboratory.
According to HBTRC Medical Director T. Wilson Woo, MD, PhD, there are various reasons why securing donations of healthy and diseased brains has always been challenging. Many people don’t realize the importance of brain donation and those that do may have reservations about the process. Also, illnesses like PTSD and depression may be mistakenly considered more “psychological” than “physical.” Finally, advances in brain imaging techniques have led some people to believe that postmortem brain investigations are no longer necessary.
“With postmortem research, we’re studying brain circuits and the molecules and cells that support these circuits—the potential targets of new drugs,” said Dr. Woo. “Imaging looks at gross-level changes. While imaging captures brain activation during specific tasks and therefore may identify general brain regions that are abnormal in diseases, it does not have that critical cell-level resolution. The two approaches are complementary and equally necessary. That is why The Manton Foundation’s gift is so appreciated and valued.”