A Matter of Gray Matter: Texas Has the BrainsKEN HERMAN , Associated Press
Aug. 3, 1986 2:26 PM ET
AUSTIN, TEXAS AUSTIN, Texas (AP) _ The University of Texas has beaten Harvard in the battle for the brains, and it's temporarily keeping them in boxes in the animal lab.
The two schools were among several institutions that wanted a collection of more than 200 brains amassed over 30 years by the medical pathologist at Austin State Hospital. Coleman de Chenar, who died last year, took the brains during routine autopsies on mental patients.
The search for a new home for the collection began last year when the state hospital discovered it was in violation of federal guidelines regarding disposal of the flammable, toxic formaldehyde in which the brains are preserved.
The fluid has to be changed once a year, and the hospital decided to find a new home for the brains rather than spend the money needed for the mandated disposal system, said Linda Campbell, director of clinical support services.
When word went out that the brains were available, requests flowed in. Ms. Campbell said she heard from six major institutions that wanted the whole collection and a handful of science teachers interested in a single brain for their classes.
''I was just overwhelmed with calls,'' she said.
The brains, many of them deformed by diseases that debilitated the patients, are valuable research artifacts, said Ms. Campbell.
''When de Chenar would find something unusual, he maintained it. It includes quite a number of unusual specimens that doctors today never see,'' she said. ''The pathologists can study them and see some of the cause and effect.''
The brains are accompanied by medical records on the patients from which they were taken.
Dr. Edward D. Bird, associate professor of neuropathology at the Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Mass., mounted his school's quest for the brains. Harvard has a ''brain bank'' from which tissue is supplied to researchers across the nation. The bank has more than 1,000 brains, but few from schizophrenic patients.
''There is so much information available in those brain tissues, and so many researchers are crying out to get such tissue, it would be a crime to throw it away,'' Bird said in a telephone interview. ''I was just trying to make sure it didn't get thrown away.''
The collection went to UT because the school was nearby and has programs in which students work at the state hospital. UT also has the system required for legal disposal of formaldehyde.
The brains, in large glass jars, were packed into cardboard boxes and taken to UT's Animal Resources Center for temporary storage until a permanent storage and display site is picked.
Stuart Hall, a UT graduate student in biopsychology who is working with the collection, said the brains offer a look at advanced stages of some diseases. Modern medical technology can treat some of the diseases represented in the collection, but not all.
''This teaches you about the dynamics or the events that occur (in diseases). Even though you may not see it in that severe an extent today, it still does occur to some extent,'' he said.
The brains show the development of some diseases that are now treatable, and some that still defy treatment, such as Alzheimer's Disease.
''For medical students, it is really something they need to be aware of. They might see it in their lifetime and they might not, but they have to know about it,'' Ms. Campbell said of the variety of diseases shown in the collection.