Autism research received a recent setback. Last year in May 2012, a freezer failure at the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, McLean Hospital, caused 147 frozen specimens to thaw over a period of a few days, with 54 of them dedicated to autism research. Brain tissue is extremely fragile and degrades quickly. This will have an impact on autism research because the tissue cannot be used as intended, which was to study proteins produced by genes and other molecules.
The defrosted tissue can still be used for genetic research but it is unclear what current experiments can yield. Of the 54 autistic brains, 32 of them had been divided, with half put into the freezers and the other half preserved in formalin. The samples preserved; however, yield different information than the frozen samples.
Only a small number brains are donated to science every year as evident by the low amount of brain tissue at the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. This particular bank has been accepting donations of people with autism for about 20 years. Researchers are trying to identify how autism is affecting the brain in earlier stages of childhood; therefore, the greatest demand is for tissue from children.
In a study published in 2011 by the Journal of the American Medical Association, it has been discovered that brains of autistic children grow at an accelerated rate during the first year of life compared to brains of typical children. The autistic brain samples had an abnormally large number of brain cells, 67% more brain cells in the frontal region than the controls. Another study, published by PLOS Genetics, found that autistic children had abnormalities in genes that controlled the number of brain cells. It is with research like this that may lead to treatment that is able to correct an abnormal growth pattern.
Autism Speaks is an advocacy and research organization which runs the Autism Tissue Program (ATP). This program is partially responsible for collection at McLean Hospital where the freezers failed. The program only supports tissue donation within the US, Canada, and the UK.
If you would like to consider becoming a registered brain donor or want more information, visit the Autism Tissue Program site. When you register with the program, they will provide you with a wallet card that indicates your wishes to be a brain tissue donor and it provides important contact information at the time of need. The Brain and Tissue Bank at University of Maryland also has a website for families interested in donation. Also visit the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center which serves as the tissue repository for the Autism Tissue Program.