Director’s message: May 2024

By David G. Amaral, Ph.D., Scientific Director of Autism BrainNet

The era of “modern” postmortem brain research goes back at least 150 years, when Paul Broca determined that damage to a portion of the human frontal lobe led to the loss of the ability to speak. Since then, postmortem brain research has been an ever-evolving area of science with accomplishments that Professor Broca could not have even dreamed of. For example, up to about 10 years ago, the genetics of postmortem brains that went to brain banks was not determined. However, every brain donation that comes into Autism BrainNet undergoes whole genome sequencing to determine whether there are any altered genes. In several cases, genetic mutations have been discovered that can reasonably be suggested as the cause of a donor’s autism.

Autism BrainNet Staff Meeting, April 2024

At the end of April, the entire Autism BrainNet team traveled to the Simons Foundation in New York City for a two-day meeting to hear from other brain bank directors with the goal of improving our operation. We heard about a new “desktop” MRI machine that could produce a three-dimensional image of a brain donation to determine if there is any internal pathology, such as a tumor or hemorrhage, before the brain is prepared for research purposes. We also heard presentations by scientists who are using postmortem brain tissue in their research. We heard, for example, how genetic analyses of the brains of individuals with Huntington’s disease provide new insights into the cause and progression of the disease. The results of this work would not be possible using any other strategy than postmortem brain research.

Much of the meeting was dedicated to discussing how we could further enhance our brain processing practices. Our aim is to provide the best possible resource to the greatest number of researchers. For example, while Autism BrainNet already has a team member (Dr. Derek Oakley of MGH) who is a board-certified neuropathologist who can provide full neuropathology assessments if requested by a medical examiner, Dr. Oakley is now carrying out neuropathological evaluation of every brain that comes into Autism BrainNet. This additional step gives the investigators additional information that may be important in the interpretation of the results of their studies. We have also established a Histology Core at the UC Davis MIND Institute that will enable tissue from even very small brain regions to be sent to numerous approved investigators.

We want you, our community, to know that we are continually implementing processes that promote the best possible scientific use of the precious donations that we are receiving. As always, we are happy to answer any questions about the donation process; email us at [email protected]. We greatly appreciate your interest and commitment.