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Wuhan's Brain Bank probes humanity's hidden mysteries

By Sun Wenji (China Daily Hubei Bureau)

Updated: 2012-11-15

The Chinese Brain Bank Center (CBBC) is the largest brain bank center in China. It is located in South-Central University for Nationalities in Wuhan, Hubei province.

"So far, we have only explored 40 percent of the human brain, there are still many hidden mysteries to be explored and discovered. There is still a long way to go until we get a thorough understanding of the human brain," said Professor Dai Jiapei, head of the Wuhan Institute for Neuroscience and Neuroengineering and the Chinese Brain Bank Center (CBBC).

The Chinese Brain Bank Center was established in Wuhan in 2007. It is organized and managed by Tongji Medical College of Huazhong University of Science and Technology and South-Central University for Nationalities. In the past five years the center has collected over 1,200 human brains.

Professor Dai attributed its success to the open-mindedness of the residents in Hubei province. Dai continued to explain, "Hubei province was the forerunner in body donation. We started body donation in 2009. I believe this, to a great degree, guarantees the sources of the brains." According to Professor Dai, there are two major sources of human brain tissue. One source is from those who die accidentally through forensic autopsy under the family's permission. The other method is to receive tissue from body donors.

Professor Dai Jiapei is an expert in neuroscience and neuroengineering. He worked at a brain bank center in Holland for 15 years and has rich experience in managing the human brain bank center.

Every year, 60 to 80 brain tissue samples are received from forensic autopsies. Tissue gained from body donors has been increasing at the same time since the CBBC began its cooperation with the Wuhan Red Cross Society in 2011.

Recently, a centenarian telephoned the center and expressed his wish to donate his brain.

At first, the man was puzzled and worried that he was so old that his brain was of no use to scientific research, but Professor Dai explained to him the significance of brain donation. According to Dai, the center is most lacking in brain tissue from babies and the elderly. Brain tissue from the elderly is important to the research of nervous system diseases such as Alzheimer's disease (AD). To date, the CBBC has only collected four brains from elderly over 80, far from enough.

The lack of brain tissue actually reflects the awkward situation of brain bank centers in mainland China at present. Ten years ago, the Affiliated Hospital of Anhui Medical University established the first human brain bank center in mainland China. However, to date it has collected only 10 brains due to a lack of brain donors. Efforts to establish brain bank centers have been made in places like Shanghai and Hangzhou, but most of these centers failed to make significant inroads.

Usually, donated organs are transplanted into the recipient, but since the human brain is used for scientific research and not for transplant, the question becomes how to preserve human brain tissue.

Generally speaking, adult brain tissue should be treated properly within eight hours after death, four hours for babies or children.

Professor Dai noted that "after brain tissue is taken to the center, four to five researchers will, in two hours, divide the brain tissue into 60 to 70 parts and then fix it with chemicals like formagene and paraffin, or preserve it by freezing."

Professor Dai led us to a laboratory and took out a small bottle from a freezer (0-4 C), inside which was a brain’s frontal lobe. Other parts of the brain stored in the freezer included the hypothalamus, hippocampus and pons. Another freezer (-80 C) was also used at the center.

Apart from the preservation of tissue, maintaining a complete record of information related to the brain is extremely important.

"Brain tissue information is vital to our research, so brain tissue with incomplete information will not be accepted," Professor Dai said. Information needed includes the donor's age, gender, time of death, the medical history of the donor, and his or her family name. The more information the better.

The human brain is the most complex and mysterious organ in the human body because a human's abilities to perceive, memorize, think and speak are closely related to it.

"The fundamental significance of brain research is to know what it is to be human," added Professor Dai. "There are altogether three kinds of brain research: understanding the brain, developing the brain, and treating related diseases." Currently, global brain research centers around these three categories.

Professor Dai introduced that in Western countries like Holland, scientists set up special brain banks, studying a specific group, such as professors, athletes, and musicians. Recently, research in London found that the brains of autistic people were quite different from normal brains because they had less grey matter on the left temporal sulcus. This discovery could possibly help develop the brains of people suffering from autism.

In terms of disease treatment, studies have been focused on Alzheimer's disease (AD). Research in Sweden just discovered that the average brain volume of AD patients is smaller, the smaller the brain volume the more serious the disease. Even though the causes of AD haven't been thoroughly discovered and understood, the discovery marks an important step towards successfully researching AD.

Discoveries have also been made in mainland China. Last year, the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences used samples collected by the CBBC, comparing it with brains from rhesus monkeys and chimpanzees. They discovered that the synapses on the human cerebral cortex developed five years later than that of the rhesus and chimpanzee. Researchers have put forward the hypothesis that these five years may be the reason why humans are more developed and evolved.

The above discovery is just one of the achievements made by using brain tissue provided by the CBBC. So far, the center has established a set of procedures for research institutes to apply for brain tissue: scientific research institutes shall first make their applications by sending an e-mail to the CBBC; brain tissues will then be provided after researchers at the CBBC confirm the application. Fudan University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences continue to maintain a long-term relationship with the CBBC.