Harvard's Brain Freeze Malfunction

Brain research is a strikingly slow field. Despite advancements in modern science and medicine, scientists still have a limited understanding of how the brain actually works. Even when they can find study the brain using sophisticated M.R.I. scans — like Dr. Oliver Sacks research into music’s effect on the brain — no one can firmly say what it means.

Oddly enough, a huge amount of our current understanding of the brain can be traced to examinations of brains of deceased individuals suffering afflictions. Basic idea: After an individual suffering a disease or disorder dies, scientists conduct an autopsy and try to find a connection between the brain and the disorder/behavior. Famous brains dissected include those of Henry Molaison (perhaps the most famous amnesiac), two of Paul Pierre Broca’s patients (led to the discovery of Broca’s area, which is linked to speech), and Albert Einstein (famous genius). Boston University, meanwhile, has been dissecting and researching the donated brains of many NFL players who suffered devastating effects from concussions, as Jason Schwartz wrote in this magazine a few years ago.

Which makes it all the more tragic that Belmont’s McLean Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard, recently lost 150 brains due to a broken freezer. As the Globe reports, the freezer shut off sometime in late May, but failed to trigger two alarms. (Oddly, an external thermostat also showed that the freezer was still working, leading some of the staff to suspect foul play.) Autism Speaks, an autism research organization, owned one-third of the brains; the remainder were from individuals who had suffered a neurological disorder, including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. According to the Globe:

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.

The collection, owned by the advocacy and research organization Autism Speaks, “yields very, very important information that allows us to have a better understanding of what autism is, as well as the contribution of environmental and immune factors,’’ said Pardo, whose 2004 study of brains stored in the bank was the first to find that autism involves the immune system. “The benefit has been great.’’

The loss doesn’t appear to be caused by human error, but equipment malfunction doesn’t make it much better. Hopefully, the publication of these losses will drive more, not fewer, individuals to donate their much-needed brains to science.