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Banking on Research to Point to Cure for Autism

December 01, 2016

Dr. Chunfeng Tan examines brain tissue.

Kelly Gleason walked into a room full of bulky freezers with thick doors and big, vertical levers.

“Every single one of these is full of brains. This one has 30 brains in it,” she said, tugging the lever and pulling the heavy door open. “I’ve collected over 200 now.” Ms. Gleason is a senior research associate in UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry, where she oversees two dozen freezers for the brains. The freezers are about twice the size of a household refrigerator and have a digital display of their temperature, about -79 degrees Celsius.

This scientific community considers this collection priceless. It’s well-maintained and has been carefully pieced together since the collection was started in 2003 by Dr. Carol Tamminga, chairman of psychiatry and holder of the Lou and Ellen McGinley Distinguished Chair in Psychiatric Research and the Communities Foundation of Texas Chair in Brain Science at UT Southwestern.

Dr. Tamminga is also acting director of the Center for Autism & Developmental Disabilities, a joint venture between Children’s Health and UT Southwestern.

Her brain bank has such a strong reputation that the MIND Institute at the University of California, Davis, asked Dr. Tamminga to make her lab a founding member of Autism BrainNet, a consortium of academic sites that will collect and distribute brain tissue to advance scientific research of autism. Other participants include Beth Israel Hospital in Boston and The Seaver Autism Center Tissue Program in New York.

Dr. Tamminga’s lab already has more brains for the autism collection than any other site. This is an example of how Children’s Health and UT Southwestern stand out in fruitful, interdisciplinary collaboration. Health care professionals in the Center for Autism & Developmental Disabilities engage in clinical work that informs the autism research conducted in Dr. Tamminga’s lab, where scientists seek answers to the most crucial scientific questions about autism.

At least one family that receives treatment at the clinic has agreed to donate to the brain bank should something happen to their child.

These brains are precious, and the researchers talk about them with a noticeable balance of esteem for their scientific value and respect for the brain donors’ contributions.

“Just because they’re gone doesn’t mean they’re not helping,” Ms. Gleason said. “They’re the only reason why scientific progress continues to grow.”

Dr. Tamminga said she remembers the first brain she ever collected.

“It’s almost as though you have this person right there. It was really moving,” she said.

Dr. Chunfeng Tan, a research associate, has hundreds of boxes of slides of brain tissue she has used to study depression, schizophrenia and drug addiction. When the collection has enough autism brains, new slides can be developed to study autism.

Dr. Tamminga said each 3-pound brain can yield about 200 experiments – and limitless insights for scientists. Pieces of the brains are shared with scientist all over the world as researchers continue to tackle new questions about neurological diseases and disorders.

“A lot of knowledge can come from just one brain,” Dr. Tamminga said. “One brain will help people for many years.”

Jill, a mother of two boys who were treated at the Center for Autism & Developmental Disabilities, said she and her husband put themselves and their two sons, Alexander and William, on the list to donate their brains when they die.

“We don’t know nearly enough about autism. We need to know what’s going to work,” she said. “We can truly make a difference for all the other little Alexanders and Williams that are out there.”

 

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