Unique brain collection begins to unlock its secrets


A collection of more than 2,500 human brains, gifted to a psychiatric hospital in Duffel, could solve mysteries about neurological conditions like depression, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s

Research ‘gold mine’

The vacuum-sealed plastic containers stacked on the shelves are embossed with text familiar to Tupperware users: “Open lid prior to use in microwave oven” and “only reheatable, not for cooking”. The contents float in fluid, looking like morsels of meat.

But they’re not going anywhere near an oven. They are human brains. And there are more than 2,500 of them, pickled in plastic containers and glass jars, in a university cellar in Duffel, Antwerp province.

“I don’t find it creepy,” says Manuel Morrens, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Antwerp University, reading my mind. “I see these brains as the raw material for research into conditions like schizophrenia and severe depression. This is a gold mine for us.”

Duffel is best known as the Flemish town that gave the world the coats and bags that still bear its name, but the brain bank takes the local reputation in a very different direction. It is an unlikely story, and a ghoulish sight, but one that could lead to new insights on the links between body and mind.

Storage solution

The brains were gifted to the Duffel Psychiatric Hospital (PZ Duffel) last year by a London hospital that pioneered brain research in the post-war era. They were part of a larger brain collection started by British pathologist John Corsellis in 1951, who collected brains of deceased patients at Runwell Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Essex.

The Corsellis collection includes brains from people with a variety of neurological disorders, including tumours, dementia, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s and even injuries caused by boxing. Patients who died at the hospital had routine autopsies, and the brains were kept, along with detailed medical records.

Corsellis passed away in 1994 and, after his successor died in 1997, the collection was transferred to the West London Mental Health Trust and kept at St Bernard’s Hospital in Ealing. When the hospital ran out of storage space, they offered the collection to medical institutions around the world.

We don’t have a database of brains collections…. Most of them linger in basements

- Dr Manuel Morrens

That was when Morrens (pictured above) and his team stepped in. One of Duffel’s PhD students, Livia De Picker, contacted the hospital and asked if they could have the brains of the psychiatric patients.

“They would have been destroyed if they’d not found a new home for them,” Morrens says of the stacks of containers. “They offered us the brains, and we only paid the shipping costs.”

But getting them to Duffel was a challenge. “We asked DHL and other express companies if they could courier them over,” says Morrens. “They asked how many brains there were, expecting 10 or 20. When we said 2,500, they said they couldn’t.”

Eventually, a shipping service loaded them onto a big cargo truck, took the ferry and drove them over. “Imagine what it was like at the border when they had to declare it?!” Morrens laughs.

Strange inheritance

Morrens is, if you like, the brains behind the Duffel research team. A 40-year-old from Brussels, he heads the research department at PZ Duffel, a satellite of Antwerp University Hospital. He is also a professor at the Collaborative Antwerp Psychiatric Research Institute, which is part of Antwerp University.

Although Morrens is responsible for a macabre basement collection, he is sanguine and even chirpy about his strange inheritance. He confesses that he enjoys the 1983 Steve Martin comedy The Man With Two Brains, about a brain surgeon who develops a technique to access the organ by unscrewing the top of the head.

But he is very serious about what the collection offers researchers. “This collection gives us a huge opportunity to learn more about brain disorders. It will really contribute to our understanding of what is going on inside the brain.”

The original Corsellis collection numbers around 8,500, but Duffel has mainly taken those that relate to psychiatric research – brains from people with psychosis, manic depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, alcohol-related diseases and intellectual disabilities.

Border-crossing brains

Morrens is uncertain if it’s the biggest collection in the world, noting wryly that “we don’t have a database of brain collections, so we don’t know. Most of them linger in basements”. But it is the world’s largest known collection of brain tissue samples from psychiatric patients.

A few of the brains are still intact, but most of them have been sliced into about 10 pieces and preserved in formaldehyde. Some smaller brain pieces, like the frontal cortex and the hippocampus, are fixed inside solid paraffin.

Each brain – or part thereof – is accompanied by the medical file that was kept up until the death of the patient. The tissue and medical records of the Corsellis collection are so well preserved and organised that it’s a treasure trove for researchers.

In recent years, it has been harder to access the brains of psychiatric patients. Not only are there new, stricter ethical regulations about collecting post-mortem tissue but, inherent to some psychiatric inflictions, informed consent from patients is often unclear. “It was almost impossible to find actual brain tissue,” Morrens says.

First timers

He explains that no one in his team – or even any psychiatrist in Belgium – had worked with actual brain tissue. “We didn’t have any brains to work with,” he says. They only looked at blood samples or brain scans (MRIs), which use contrast agents, or tracers, for visibility.

But these measures said little about the activity of the brain. For example, MRI scans cannot identify the different proteins or enzymes that are activated by illness. “Now we can look at it directly. We can examine the brains at a microscopic level,” says Morrens.

Having a collection of brains in pots from almost seven decades ago provides another crucial opportunity for researchers, in that they have not been touched by modern medication. When Corsellis began his collection, the first psychiatric drugs were only just coming onto the market, and many patients had never received any.

We have the whole evolution of psychiatric treatment in this collection

- Manuel Morrens

That means scientists can now research certain diseases and disorders using these “uncontaminated” brains and unaltered tissue. “Contemporary research is disadvantaged because the brains are taken from deceased patients who have been given drugs,” Morrens says. “But well into the 1950s there were no pharmaceutical treatments for psychiatric conditions. So many brains from that era were not affected by the confounding aspects of medicine. This is something we can tease apart with the collection we now have. We can investigate the disorders in their purest form.”

This ties in with developments in brain science over the years. Morrens says most brain collections around the world are not focused on neurological conditions.

For example, pharmaceutical trials to see if a new drug works usually look just at changes in behaviour. This approach stemmed, in part, from claims by the founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, who said that most psychiatric conditions were psychological in nature, rather than biological.

Brain ‘messengers’

“So people did not look at the neurological nature of brains,” Morrens says. “We have the whole evolution of psychiatric treatment in this collection.”

That could mean breakthroughs in biological psychiatry science, a field specialising in researching mental disorders through the physical function of the nervous system. The researchers at Duffel are now in a position to see what molecular processes are taking place inside the brains of psychiatric patients, and compare them with those of people who display none of these conditions.

The initial results of their research will be available later this year. One of them is by Stuart Maudsley, vice chair of the department of biomedical research at Antwerp University. He puts brain tissue inside a special €1 million device to analyse the proteins and see the activity of what Morrens calls the “messengers” of the brain.

First study of its kind

“We are looking at differences between the mechanisms of healthy and schizophrenic patients, and at the effects of medication on the illness,” Morrens says. “This will be first study of its kind in the world.”

The research will investigate “which proteins increase and which decrease,” he continues. “It will show which processes in the brain are more active and which are less active, and from this we can see which are illness-specific and which are medication-specific.”

Another paper will look at an issue that Morrens says is a hot topic in the world of brain research: the role of inflammation, and how it could be a factor in the pathophysiology of manic depression.

But before the first papers are even published, the Duffel collection has already caused a stir and made people think about the nature of the body and the brain. Morrens chuckles at the thought of a recent visit they had from a television crew making a children’s news programme. “They had a child reporter who found it really creepy!”

Photo: Yves Herman/REUTERS