Banking on Brain Research
Collection is a valuable resource for neuroscientists
When Larry Carver, M.D., sought out donations for his research and began building up a supply of postmortem brain tissues, other researchers exploring neurological and psychiatric disorders caught wind of his work and began to call, seeking samples for their own studies. Thus began what is now the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine Brain Tissue Bank.
Dr. Carver, UMKC associate dean for Western Missouri Mental Health Center Programs and director of the brain bank, brought his work - currently a supply of nearly 150 brain specimens - to the UMKC School of Medicine just more than a year ago. The brain bank serves as a collection and distribution resource for brain tissues of patients who suffered any number of conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and age-related dementia, neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson's and Huntington's, mental disorders, drug and alcohol addictions, as well as stroke, cerebrovascular diseases and traumatic brain injuries.
The brain bank is one of only three located in middle America. The other two are both in St. Louis, and one of those is limited to brain tissues from Alzheimer's patients, Dr. Carver said.
"I see the brain bank as a core facility for people who want to do research on the human brain to help advance neuroscience and help us discover the mysteries of the human brain," Dr. Carver said.
Unraveling the mysteries
Dr. Carver was an associate professor of psychiatry and researcher at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans when he first started his brain bank. He and his team had launched a study that ultimately discovered unusually high levels of the chemical dopamine in the thalamus region of the brains of schizophrenia patients. The thalamus is the region through which all sensory information passes in transmission to other specific areas of the brain.
By using three-dimensional grid mapping procedures to examine small sections of the thalamus, Dr. Carver found as much as three times the normal concentration of dopamine in schizophrenic brains as in the normal brain. The next question, obviously, was how did it get there?
"In our own studies, it definitely seems to us that the problem with schizophrenia comes from some kind of lesion in the thalamus," Dr. Carver said. "Now, the cure for that is another step."
For scientists currently working to unravel such neurological mysteries, that's where the UMKC Brain Tissue Bank becomes an important ally. A scientist exploring why nerve cells become impaired or die in the substantia nigra region of the brain of Parkinson’s patients, for example, can contact Dr. Carver at the UMKC Brain Tissue Bank and request tissue samples from that particular section of a Parkinson's victim’s brain. Dr. Carver said that while operating the brain bank at LSU, he supplied brain tissues to researchers from as far away as Japan.
Stuart Munro, M.D., chairman of psychiatry at the UMKC School of Medicine, said what makes the supply of brains from these patients so critical is that it takes an entire human lifetime to grow the tissue.
"You can't just recreate the brain," Dr. Munro said.
Dr. Munro and Dr. Carver said they hope the UMKC brain bank will also connect with the ongoing Kansas City Life Sciences Initiative to become a facility that helps spur additional interest in neuroscience research in Kansas City and draw neuroscientists to the region.
"It's important to know that there is a network of brain banks across the United States that share and exchange tissues, and that this brings us into the nation-wide research community," Dr. Munro said.
No substitute for the real thing
The majority of early brain studies were conducted on laboratory animals. And while those early studies were effective and provided some answers, Dr. Carver said, they still left researchers facing a dilemma. That is the fact that the human brain is simply different and much more complex than the brain of laboratory animals.
It is believed that the human brain contains as many as a trillion different neurons or cells, and that each may have as many as at least 1,000 different connections - Dr. Carver said some have estimated the number of connections to be somewhere in the area of 10 to the 15th power. Whatever the figure, scientists are just scratching the surface in developing an understanding of the disease processes of the human brain.
Dr. Carver points out that there are also some much less obvious, subtle differences between human and animal brains, such as the tracks through which chemicals travel from one part of the brain to another. For years it was believed that a heavy track of dopamine existed from the subcortical area of the brain to the frontal lobe, which is what animal studies showed. The reality is that more recent studies of the human brain show a very small track of dopamine. Which leads back to Dr. Carver's original question concerning the unusually high concentration levels of dopamine found in the brains of schizophrenia patients.
How does it get there and what can be done about it?
It's just one of the many questions about the human brain still to be explored. But now, there are resources with the help of the UMKC School of Medicine Brain Tissue Bank.
"In brain science, we're in the stage where we just know enough to get excited and think we know everything," Dr. Carver said. "But in reality, we’re just one step beyond a hand-waving theory."
-Written by Kelly Edwards, UMKC School of Medicine
Posted: June 15, 2009