The New York Brain Bank is Like the Walmart of Brains

This 5,000-brain collection is changing the game for scientists who study neurodegenerative disease

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If you’re looking for brains, at the New York Brain Bank, they got brains. Within the subterranean facility, which lies beneath a Children’s Hospital in Washington Heights, scientists have access to a collection of more than 5,000 preserved human brains with neurodegenerative disease. As people live longer, the chances of an individual developing one of these diseases—Alzheimer’s particularly—increases, and research into causes and treatments for neurodegenerative conditions has become more important than ever. The stockpile is linked to a database, where a researcher can input a specific tissue or condition, and receive directions to one of 10 enormous brain freezers. The whole brain attainment process takes about five business days from the initial request.

“It’s like Walmart meets a brain bank,” John Crary, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pathology & cell biology told Columbia Medicine Magazine. “If you want a piece of the hippocampus, it’s already there and ready to go. The beauty is that you put a lot of work in upfront, so when it comes out, it comes out fast.”

The method of storing and preserving the brains involves chopping them in half, since these neurodegenerative conditions—like Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s, and ALS—tend to affect the brain symmetrically. One half can be sliced and preserved in formalin (a mixture of formaldehyde, water, and methyl alcohol) while the other side is separated into up to 150 “blocks, ” distinct regions of the brain that are frozen with liquid nitrogen vapor.

Alzheimer's-related brain shrinkage. Gif via the National Institute on aging

Dr. Etty Cortes, MD, the facility’s assistant director, keeps the place running through its day-to-day operations. Cortes, who takes care of most of the 300 monthly requests that come in to the bank, holds the keys to the freezers, meaning if you need brains, you better keep on her good side. But, she warns, if your domain is an underground brain dungeon, you better like brains and being cooped up underground. “As you can see, there are no windows here,” Dr. Cortés says. “You couldn’t stay here if you don’t like this. For us, this is a passion.”

And getting ahold of brains is no picnic either. Back in the old days, you’d just have Igor dig up something fresh, but the demands of modern science require a good amount of preparation; from the moment of death, the organ begins to decompose. Most of the brains in the bank come from donors, who during their lifetimes made the brave, selfless, somewhat terrifying decision to donate their brains to science. The process is a lot more complicated than you might think and is a tightrope balancing act of speed, science, and tact for the donor’s family. “They’re amazing people, letting us go into their brain,” says Dr. Vonsattel, the director of the bank. “Those people are with us, each of them, even though they are dead.”

For more on the New York Brain Bank and the fascinating process of brain donation, check out the original article in Columbia Medicine magazine.

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