Freezer failure at Harvard brain bank could set back autism research

By Chelsea Whyte on June 11, 2012 5:50 PM EDT

brain in a jar
Brain donations are difficult to come by as it is, but will this freezer fiasco stop people giving their brains to autism research? (Photo: Gaetan Lee)

A freezer malfunction at the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center thawed 150 brains, about one-third of which were donated for autism research. The loss of the collection, owned by advocacy and research group Autism Speaks, is a staggering setback for scientists trying to understand the cause of the developmental disorder.

"This was a priceless collection,'' the center's director, Francine Benes, told The Boston Globe. "You can't express its value in dollar amounts."

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Foul play can't be completely ruled out yet, but after reviewing surveillance footage, Harvard spokesperson Adriana Bobinchock told ABC News that it's not likely.

The damage to these brains could slow autism research by a decade as the collection is restored, said Carlos Pardo, a neuropathologist and associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University, reports The Boston Globe.

An official at the McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., discovered the shut-down freezer on May 31. Alarms that usually alert hospital workers to that kind of malfunction hadn't gone off, and the external thermostat - checked twice daily - had an incorrect reading of -79 degrees Celsius. It was actually closer to the temperature in the average kitchen refrigerator, which suggests the freezer may have shut down days earlier.

At least 53 samples intended for autism research were affected, some turning dark with decay. All but one of those brains had been bisected, with one hemisphere placed in preservative formalin, and the other placed in the freezer.

According to an open letter from Geri Dawson, the Chief Science Officer for Autism Speaks, "Fortunately, the affected tissue has already been used in many studies."

And, an initial review shows that the DNA in the samples is intact and can still be used for genetic research, according to the Atlanta Journal Consistitution. It's still unclear, though, whether those samples can be used for the full range of neuroscience needs, and while the collection is filled out again, the limited use could slow down autism research.

"This is definitely a blow to the speed of progress, given that donations occur over a period of years and it takes time to amass a large sample," Lori Warner, director of HOPE Center for Autism, told ABC News. "This type of brain research is unique in that it's actual physical evidence of any differences or changes in the brains of the patients compared to controls who do not have autism."

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