The study of human brain tissue has long helped scientists increase our knowledge of how the nervous system functions. Postmortem human brain research, for instance, has played a key role in the development of a genetic test for Huntington's disease and a treatment for Parkinson's disease. Currently, researchers are exploring neurochemical and anatomical avenues in the hopes of discovering the biological nature of mental illnesses as well as the brain mechanisms responsible for psychosis and other symptoms associated with these disorders.

Brain tissue also provides invaluable information for studies of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), a condition that affects up to one in 50 school-age children, according to government estimates.

To collect brain tissue in an effort to further evolve research, Autism Speaks and the Simons Foundation announced the establishment of the new Autism BrainNet. This multi-site network has begun to acquire, process, store, and distribute brain tissue resources to accelerate understanding of the biological basis of autism. The network will build on the foundation established by more than a decade of contributions made by Autism Speaks Autism Tissue Program (ATP) and other brain banks.

An accompanying Autism BrainNet portal will launch in the fall of 2013, allowing the autism community to access research results and learn how brain studies contribute to understanding and treating autism. Meanwhile, ATP, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, the University of California MIND Institute, and the University of Texas at Southwestern Medical School will be the first four institutional partners of Autism BrainNet. The network will grow to include more national and international partners and will eventually assume the operations of ATP.

In May 2012, an official at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. discovered a freezer malfunction at a Harvard-affiliated hospital hosting one of the world's largest brain banks. Out of 150 thawed brains, a third were from people with autism while the remainder were from people who had died from other neurological conditions including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, or other psychiatric conditions. All of the defrosted brains had turned dark with decay. At the time, Carlos Pardo, a neuropathologist at Johns Hopkins University, told the Boston Globe that the damage to the brains could slow autism research by a decade (Pardo's 2004 research, which used brains from the bank, linked autism to the immune system for the first time).

Fifty two of the brains in the destroyed collection that related to autism research had already been bisected, with one hemisphere placed in formalin and the other half returned to the freezer. The formalin fixed hemispheres of these 52 cases have remained available for research or have been assigned to specific research efforts. In fact, these remainders have become an essential part of Autism BrainNet.

Brain donation is a difficult subject for many and it takes courage to make such a profound request of the families who have suffered loss of a member with autism. Each of the researchers and organizations participating in Autism BrainNet are sensitive to the complex feelings of the individuals considering a brain donation. They commend the courageous families who have already donated to the Autism Tissue Program.

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