How century-old brains in jars could help researchers treat mental illness
Scientists hope specimens will reveal mental disorder 'markers' to improve diagnosis for psychological illnesses
A museum housing 19th century brains may seem like a strange place to find a breakthrough, but one scientist says they could provide the key to new treatments for mental illness.
Dr George Sandusky, from Indiana University, has developed a technique to extract usable DNA from the collection of preserved brains despite their extreme age.
Dr George Sandusky with brain samples on display at the Indiana Medical History Museum. He has developed a technique that could help find 'markers' to diagnose mental disorders in the future
The brains came from patients who suffered from mental disorders who died at Central State Hospital – an asylum established in the mid-1800s.
The goal is to use the specimens to improve diagnosis and treatment for psychological illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder using a simple blood test.
Dr Sandusky said: 'This work could make an impact on patient care – a huge impact.
'It's going to help diagnose patients with mental disorders quicker and faster.'
Using brain donors from traditional sources to advance this goal only brings in about 12 new subjects per year.
Brain power: Specimens that are more than a century old could be used to help patients with mental disorders today
The museum collection, which includes over 400 specimens, could speed the arrival of new diagnoses and treatments for the mentally ill by decades.
Dr Sandusky said of the collection: 'They preserved the brains with the best science of their time.
'The preservation techniques from the era were almost as good as ours from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. I was shocked by the quality.'
Earlier tests conducted in 2010 yielded unusable results, but new technology – as well as experienced lab workers and cutting-edge test methods – ultimately 'cracked the code.'
The lab facilities used to achieve this breakthrough are managed by the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute.
The results support work by Dr Alexander Niculescu, associate professor of psychiatry at the IU School of Medicine, who is seeking to advance personalised medicine in the treatment of mental illness using biomarkers for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and PTSD.
A biomarker is a specific region on a gene that suggests susceptibility to a certain illness. They are an increasingly common tool in the fight against cancer and other diseases, but no reliable test exists for psychiatric disorders.
Dr Niculescu is making significant advances in pinpointing potential biomarkers for mental illness. The samples from the Indiana Medical History Museum are being tested for the same telltale signs.
The goal is to use data from both studies to assist future doctors in creating a personal genetic profile for people suffering from psychiatric illnesses to ensure they are diagnosed quickly and accurately.
The search for identifiable biomarkers will pioneer new, innovative treatments in clinical practice by eliminating the current system of diagnosis, which requires significant trial and error.
'If you come in with a psychiatric illness today, you can’t really separate different mental disorders,' Dr Sandusky said.
'You have to try several drugs before finding one that even works – and that may take months.'