June 12, 2012

Freezer Failure Ruins Brain Samples, Delays Autism Research

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com

About 150 brains have been damaged at the world's largest brain tissue bank due to a freezer failure, potentially delaying research in fields such as autism.

The Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center housed at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts has brains that provide a valuable resource for studying neurological disorders like Huntington's disease, autism, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

It was reported that the freezer failed on May 31 by a technician who had opened it to retrieve a sample.

Fifty-four of the brains in the freezer were designated for autism research, while 93 were designated for research on psychiatric conditions and neurodegenerative diseases.

The brain bank stores a total of about 3,000 brains in its 24 freezers, but the autism brain samples that were affected by the one freezer tainted about a third of the total collection.

"This is a significant loss, there's no doubt about it," Dr. Francine Benes, director of the brain bank, told Reuters. "It will delay progress in the field of research."

According to a Reuters report, the hospital is still investigating whether the brains might still hold value to genetic research.

"It appears that the DNA may be in a reasonable form for genetic studies," Benes told the news agency.

The hospital said that thirty-two of the brains had been cut in half, with one side placed in formaldehyde solution, and the other in the freezer. It said samples in the formaldehyde should be okay for researchers to use in projects still.

Benes said that the frozen tissue samples are maintained at about minus 80 degrees Celsius, but the temperature reached about 7 degrees when the failure was discovered. The failure led to the RNA in the brain to be destroyed.

The freezer is supposed to have two alarms that are designed to alert security and staff if there is a malfunction, but those alarms did not sound. The hospital said both alarm systems are connected to separate circuits, and the room containing the freezer is monitored 24-hours.

The hospital will be conducting a full investigation of equipment, security systems and other potential causes of the malfunction, according to spokeswoman Adriana Bobinchock.

"The glass half full side of this disaster at McLean is that it will act as a wake-up call to other brain banks to recheck their security systems," said Suzanne Corkin, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Reuters.

According to Dr. Fred Volkmar, an autism researcher and director of the Child Study Center at Yale University, the damage is more disappointing when taking into account the recent advances in autism research.

“We can´t always know where the science is going to take us,” Volkmar told The Associated Press. “In that respect, it´s a horrible loss. The hope is that at least it´s not a total disaster.”

Benes said her biggest fear is that the loss of samples could make it harder in the future to encourage brain donation from autistic children and young adults.

“There has been a lot of resistance of brain donations for religious and cultural reasons,” she told AP.