Unlocking MYSTERIES of the Mind

Brain researchers find themselves facing twin challenges: the study of mental illness and the scarcity of donated organ.

Science & Technology

July 23, 2000|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff

BETHESDA -- You snap on a pair of latex gloves and stand there uneasily while Cyndi Weikert, a brain researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health, reaches into a wide-mouth plastic tub and lifts out a human brain.

In your hands, it is cool to the touch, pliant and slippery like a big, wrinkly, hard-boiled egg. It has the heft of a small melon.

You hold it carefully, and turn it. Gently, as you would a tiny newborn. For not so long ago this was someone -- or at least someone's mind, the seat of all their memories, their dreams, their hopes and fears.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about brain research in Sunday's Arts & Society section gave the wrong phone number for information about brain donation for medical research. The number for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill is 800-950-6264.
The Sun regrets the error.

Weikert points out the prefrontal cortex, behind the forehead, where we do our planning, have our insights and weigh our actions.

Our language abilities are here, on the side above the ear, she says. And if we stimulate this area, your arm would move; here, your leg. In the back, here, is the occipital lobe, where we "see."

You're actually holding just half a brain, the right half, for there are no whole brains at this brain bank. There also are no brains steeping in glass beakers, nourished by bubbling fluids, or communicating with white-coated scientists through a halo of electrodes, as so often seen in old horror movies.

And "It's not really a 'bank,' " says Dr. Joel E. Kleinman, neuropathology chief in the institute's Clinical Brain Disorders Branch, who runs the place.

This warren of labs and offices on the fourth floor of the Clinical Center at the institute in Bethesda is where two dozen scientists probe other people's donated brains, seeking to unwrap the mysteries of mental illness.

"To do the research we care most about, schizophrenia research," Kleinman says, "we have to collect the brains of people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia." Researchers also want the brains of immediate family members of the mentally ill, and of "controls" -- people with normal brains -- for comparison.

The institute brain lab is one of dozens of research facilities doing similar work across the country and around the world. The largest is the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, in Belmont, Mass.

In Baltimore, the University of Maryland has the Brain and Tissue Bank for Developmental Disorders. The bank works with patient and family support groups to gather about 120 brain donations annually for research into Down syndrome and other childhood chromosomal or neurodevelopmental disorders.

Also at UM is the Maryland Brain Collection, part of the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, which focuses on schizophrenia studies and seeks donations in cooperation with the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

"This is not research for the faint of heart," Kleinman says. "You sort of have to believe in this."

To relieve suffering

Kleinman clearly does. He has been calling bereaved families and asking for brains for 23 years. It is delicate, and it is difficult, he says. But it is done, ultimately, to relieve mental illness and suffering among the living.

"A lot of the people who say no, say no quickly," he says. "Others say yes so fast, because they had schizophrenic relatives, or someone who committed suicide, and they want something done. It's a terrible tragedy."

Schizophrenia is a devastating mental illness that afflicts about 1 percent of the population.

It typically emerges in early adulthood, and it is characterized by hallucinations and delusions that leave its victims unable to live peacefully and productively in society.

Its origins are rooted somehow in brain chemistry, and in the genetics that orchestrate the expression of that chemistry. Psychotropic drugs -- those which alter perception or behavior -- can hold the schizophrenic's symptoms at bay, but only so long as he or she takes them regularly.

A "cure," if there is one, could emerge from new understandings of the genetic origins of the illness, the sort that are beginning to emerge from the donated brains in Kleinman's lab, and others like it.

Nearly all the brains used in the institute's brain lab are collected from the District of Columbia's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Every violent, sudden or unexplained death in the district is reviewed by the medical examiner's office, and each year about 1,300 of those bodies are autopsied, according to Dr. Jonathan L. Arden, the chief medical examiner.

And nearly every morning, Kleinman or an associate is on hand at the medical examiner's office, or on the phone, to review the day's cases.

"We're given the opportunity to ask the family of the deceased whether they are willing, after the autopsy, to let the brain be donated for research purposes," Kleinman says.

Arden says it is "a rare opportunity to be able to create such a huge tissue resource. Brain research is very difficult; it's hard to get the right specimens and hard to get them in the right condition. It's a monumental and mind-boggling undertaking."

The protocol of asking

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