Harvard Freezer Malfunction Destroys Dozens of Brains, Sets Back Autism Research by Years

As advanced as we've gotten with our scientific and technological skills, it seems as we can still be brought down by the simplest of errors. That's what happened recently at the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, where they experienced a freezer malfunction that has defrosted 150 brains.

Before you go making the obvious "my brain has turned to mush" joke, there are actually terrible ramifications from this loss. The melted brains made up one-third of the world's largest collection of autism brain samples. Without access to these samples, scientists estimate that autism research could be set back by as much as a decade. Even worse, the bank had been collecting the donated autistic brains for about twenty years, so it will likely take years to rebuild what was lost.

The brain collection was being stored in a freezer that was equipped with two different alarms, but neither of them were triggered when the freezer failed. They believe it was down for three days before anyone noticed, and by then the 150 thawed brains had gone "dark from decay." Dr. Francine Benes, director of the center, said of the loss, "This was a priceless collection. You can't express its value in dollar amounts." It's such an unusual occurrence to have both alarms fail along with the freezer that an internal investigation is being done to determine if foul play was involved.

More than 50 of the destroyed brains were owned by Autism Speaks' Autism Tissue Program, which collects brain tissue from kids and young people with the condition. The lost brains comprised a third of their total collection. Thirty-two of those brains had been divided before freezing, so their remaining halves are preserved in formalin and will still be useful for some research, but they can't provide the same kind of information as the now-thawed brain samples could have. Fortunately, it is still possible that the thawed brains can be used for some genetics research, but whether they're in good enough condition for that is still being determined.

Freezer failure at brain bank hampers autism research [Boston Globe]

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