Entries in brains (4)


Donated Brains Damaged in Harvard Freezer

Tom Landers/The Boston Globe via Getty Images(BELMONT, Mass.) -- A freezer failure at the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center damaged one-third of the world’s largest donated brain collection for autism research.

A total of 93 donated brains were damaged at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., 54 of them earmarked for autism research through Autism Speaks. Harvard spokesperson, Adriana Bobinchock, said an investigation is underway to determine how the freezer failure occurred.

The freezer’s temperature failed in late May, and alarms that normally indicate rising temperatures did not sound.

Dr. Francine Benes, director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, told the Boston Globe that the damaged brains were a “priceless collection.” While foul play cannot totally be ruled out at this time, Bobinchock said that after reviewing surveillance footage and other safety measures, foul play is not likely.

Scientists are currently conducting tests to see if DNA in the damaged brains is intact and can be used for further genetic research. Bobinchock said, however, that “it is unclear whether the samples will be compatible with the full-range of the needs of neuroscientists.”

Thirty-two of the brains had been bisected, with one hemisphere placed in formalin (a formaldehyde liquid) and one half  put in the freezer. The brains contained in the formalin remain available for all research projects.

Autism Speaks did not return ABC News’ requests for comment, but according to an open letter from the organization’s Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Geri Dawson, many of the damaged samples had already been used in many clinical studies.

“We are confident that we can maintain the momentum of scientific studies based on brain tissue,” Dawson wrote.

There are more than 3,000 donated brains currently in the Brain Bank’s collection.  It is the largest and oldest federally-funded brain bank in the U.S.  In addition to autism, the Brain Bank collects brain tissue for the research of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Bobinchock said two secure locked doors that are under 24-hour video surveillance protect the brains.  Benes told the Boston Globe that the freezer was estimated to have been off three days before someone discovered the warmer-than-normal temperatures. The newspaper reported that the Brain Bank has been accepting donations from people with autism for about 20 years, so it will likely take several years to replace the damaged collection.

“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,” said Lori Warner, director of HOPE Center for Autism. “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.”

Dawson noted that brain donations are precious to the research and understanding of a myriad of health conditions.

“We want to ensure that this unfortunate and rare incident will not negatively affect donations in the future,” Dawson said. “We remain committed as ever to conducting research that will uncover the causes of autism and allow us to develop more effective treatments.”

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio


Meditation May Help Brains Rewire, Protect Against Mental Illness

ULTRA F/Thinkstock(NEW HAVEN, Conn.) -- The brains of experienced meditators may actually work differently than the brains of those who don't meditate, a new study from Yale University suggests.

Dr. Judson Brewer, medical director of the Yale Therapeutic Neuroscience Clinic, and his colleagues asked 10 experienced meditators and 13 people with no meditation experience to practice three basic meditation techniques: concentration, loving-kindness, and choiceless awareness.

The team then used functional magnetic resonance imaging to observe the participants' brain activity when they were practicing the meditative techniques and when they were instructed not to think of anything in particular.

In a report published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Brewer and his team found that the experienced meditators had decreased activity in an area of the brain called the default mode network, a region that is usually at work when the mind wanders.  Even when the meditators weren't meditating, this region of their brain was much quieter than in their inexperienced counterparts.

Brewer, who has practiced meditation for 15 years, said experience with meditation also seems to optimize the way the brain communicates with itself.  When the default mode networks of the experienced meditators were active, so were brain regions associated with self-monitoring and cognitive control.

"These guys have a different default mode," Brewer said. "They're constantly looking out for mind wandering [or daydreaming]."

Brewer also notes that the psychological hallmark of many forms of mental illness -- anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and schizophrenia -- is a preoccupation with one's own thoughts, specifically the negative ones.  A series of studies have linked these disorders with overactivity or faulty neurological wiring in the default mode network, the brain region that was less active in experienced meditators.

"One of the things that meditation and basic mindfulness seems to be doing is quieting down this region of the brain," Brewer said.  "It absolutely makes sense, given what we know about the default mode network."

Meditation isn't a cure for mental illness, Brewer said, but he said his study suggests that there may be a neurological basis for the benefits that many meditators report -- increased awareness, improved concentration, and a better ability to deal with the cognitive and emotional stresses of modern life.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Researcher Seeks 1,000 Brains for Studies

Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock(SAN DIEGO) -- Jacopo Annese is seeking 1,000 brains for the University of California San Diego Brain Observatory, but first, he's getting to know some of his future donors while they're still living.

Annese, a neuroanatomist, takes a humanistic approach to exploring how our brains make us the people we are.  By using MRIs to study healthy and diseased brains in the living, and after their deaths, digitally scanning ultra-thin slices of their brains for 3-D models, he hopes to elucidate the relationship between brain structure and personality, memory, emotion and of course, illness.

So far, he's collected brains from 25 deceased men and women, many of whom he's "met" through life stories and medical histories gathered from their friends and relatives.  He said he's found the extraordinary in ordinary people's lives.

Among the people he's come to know posthumously: a 50-year-old painter of horse portraits who succumbed to a heart condition and a 56-year-old woman whose sister painstakingly documented the five years before she died of early-onset Alzheimer's disease. 

Like a politician cultivating campaign contributors, Annese, a native of Florence, Italy, also cultivates relationships to assure the future of the project for which he hopes to obtain 1,000 brains by 2020.  His ideal donor list would include prominent people whose behavior and personality already have been chronicled.

After recently suggesting to Bloomberg News that real estate mogul Donald Trump would be an ideal donor, Annese later said he regretted putting Trump "on the spot."  He said he never tries to convince someone to donate, preferring instead that potential donors seek him out.

Annese said his brain bank could be "a Library of Congress for the human brain," where he's the curator, assuring "everything is well-curated and accessible."

As of Monday, a dozen people had signed up to donate upon their deaths; the lab was continuing to field inquiries.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio


Researchers Look into Brains of Tumultuous Preteens

Jupiterimages/Thinkstock(LOS ANGELES) -- For many parents, their children's preteen years could be compared only to a rollercoaster ride.

Tumultuous, erratic emotions, and unpredictable behavior are just a part of adolescence, and many parents have learned to just strap on their seat belts and hold on tight.

But why are some adolescents more emotional and susceptible to risky behaviors, while others remain steadfast in the face of peer pressure?

Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA medical school, raised just that question about his 14-year-old daughter. So Iacoboni and a team of researchers sought to answer what might make adolescents give in to their friends and take more risks.

"When [adolescents are] among a group of people, they to tend to follow what others do, and being able to control their own emotions and actions can be very important," said Iacoboni, who is also the director of the transcranial magnetic stimulation lab at the Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center at UCLA. The brain responses to emotional facial expressions, and would offer the first clue, he said.

Iacoboni and his colleagues took brain images of 38 adolescents over time as they were shown pictures of people expressing basic emotions, such as fear, happiness, sadness, anger, and neutrality. The researchers found that as the adolescents looked at faces expressing happiness or sadness, the area of the brain that expressed control over emotions showed increased activity.

The same group of adolescents reacted less emotionally to the other expressions, and the area of the brain associated with risk-taking and pleasure seeking lit up.

Previous research indicated that increased activity in the amygdala, an area deep in the brain, among preteens is associated with a higher likelihood of engaging in risky behavior, such as experimenting with drugs or sex.

"The assumption was more activity in there meant it was bad for the kids," said Iacoboni. "But we found higher activities and desires in other areas of the brain made them less prone to follow other kids."

Iacoboni and his researchers found that activity in the ventral striatum (VS), located next to the amygdala, also increased when the adolescents were shown more emotional photos.

"We saw there's an inverse activity relationship between the amygdala and the ventral striatum," said Iacoboni. "The VS activity increased while the amygdala activity slightly decreased, so the VS regulates the amygdala."

But could a test like this predict whether a preteen is more likely to act out or succumb to peer pressure? Iacoboni said it's still too early to tell.

The study didn't control for other factors in the adolescents' lives, such as socioeconomic status, current behavio, and life influences that could contribute to future behavior.

The adolescents were tested twice over two years, once at age 10 and again at age 13. The researchers plan to test the group once again when they're 16.

"The more we get these snapshots of how the brain changes over time, the more we'll be able to see how dynamic a young person's brain is," Iacoboni said. "With this information, we can potentially direct the brain in another course."

The research so far suggests that facial expressions and emotions directed at adolescents may influence their brain response and, potentially, how they act.

Perhaps parents who express -- or control -- their emotions around their preteens could influence the way they express or hold back their emotions around others, Iacoboni said.

"Sometimes staying neutral or apathetic is not the best choice, but don't be over emotional," he said. "You want to show warmth, because it'll be good for their social competence in life."

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio