New Postmortem Brain Collection for PTSD and TBI Research Launched at McLean Hospital

April 13, 2016

McLean Hospital, in partnership with Cohen Veterans Bioscience, has established a vital collection of postmortem brains to be used in research on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) in veteran and civilian populations.

According to McLean Hospital Chief Scientific Officer Kerry J. Ressler, MD, PhD, who along with colleague Sabina Berretta, MD, scientific director for the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, will be overseeing the new PTSD and TBI collection, there is an overwhelming need for postmortem research on these two afflictions.

For example, they noted:

  • Nearly 20% of soldiers—approximately 300,000—who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan have reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress or major depression.
  • Approximately 2.2 million people suffer from a traumatic brain injury in the United States. Of those, 50,000 die and 280,000 require hospital admission, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
Brain Bank staff
Chief Scientific Officer Kerry J. Ressler, MD, PhD, and Sabina Berretta, MD, scientific director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center

“We hope that through understanding these molecular and cellular differences, we will be able to develop new therapeutic approaches for intervention, prevention, and treatment of people with PTSD and TBI. Up until now, there have been no brain bank collections or studies that specifically focus on these disorders,” said Ressler, who is also a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

The collection—known as the Cohen Brain Collection—will be maintained at McLean’s Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center (HBTRC), which oversees the acquisition, processing, storage, and distribution of postmortem brain tissue to the scientific community for the purpose of conducting brain research. The HBTRC and Cohen Veterans Bioscience will also work in conjunction with the Leahy-Friedman National PTSD Brain Bank, which is part of the National Center for PTSD.

“With these new partnerships, scientists will have improved access to the resources they need to find, at a molecular level using human biology, critical clues to pathology within brains of people with neuropsychiatric disorders compared to health controls,” said Ressler.

Berretta, who is also an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, noted that while there are many ways in which scientists can investigate the human brain, postmortem studies play a critical role in understanding PTSD and TBI.

“Postmortem studies uniquely access the brain at the cellular, subcellular and molecular levels, thus representing the only approach capable of directly demonstrating pathology at these levels,” explained Berretta. “Increasing awareness about the importance of becoming a brain donor is a critical part of this mission. We are working strategically with Cohen Veterans Bioscience to reach out to different communities through a number of ways, with one of them being a comprehensive social media campaign.”

Ressler said that Cohen Veterans Bioscience is helping to fund the large scale program, with the goal to procure 100 brains in three years.

“These brains will allow us to further understand how the genes and molecular pathways of these disorders go awry in the aftermath of trauma,” said Ressler. “While PTSD is an extremely serious and even deadly disorder, it’s one for which there’s great promise in creating prevention and treatment. With increased public awareness and community support, we really hope to make a difference.”

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