AD/PD 2009: Europeans Create Common Brain Bank

Initiative Could Help Overcome Barriers to Research

Pauline Anderson

March 12, 2009

March 12, 2009 (Prague, Czech Republic) — European countries have worked closely together to create a common economic foundation and a common currency. Now they are collaborating on a common brain bank that promises to streamline access to brain specimens and overcome barriers to researching central nervous system (CNS) and psychiatric diseases. BrainNet Europe (BNE) is a network of 19 established brain banks in 13 countries across the continent.

Attendees of the 9th International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease (AD) and Parkinson's Disease (PD) learned that securing brains for research purposes is becoming increasingly difficult, as fewer autopsies are being carried out and ethical standards are becoming stricter.

Meanwhile, advances in the field have created increased demand for brain specimens, according to Hans A. Kretzschmar, MD, director of the Institute of Neuropathology, Brain-Net, German Reference Center for Diseases of the Central Nervous System, in Munich, Germany.

Access to human brain specimens is vital to the continued study of CNS disorders — especially in the wake of the human genome project. Indeed, some groundbreaking research would have been impossible without such access.

Autopsy Rate Declining Worldwide

"There's no doubt that many avenues of research would not have been possible in the absence of brains that were collected shortly after death," said Dr. Kretzschmar. As an example, he cited the discovery of a brain protein linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) made possible only through brain banking. Such discoveries increase demand for brain specimens, but at the same time supply is decreasing, said Dr. Kretzschmar. "The autopsy rate is declining worldwide, so it's hard to get your hands on a specimen. Brains are hard to come by in this day and age."

Another reason for the declining supply of brain tissue is changing ethical standards. Whereas in the past it was relatively easy to secure such samples, today it often requires approval of relatives and possibly others, which can complicate and delay access to brain tissues. "This really makes for a dearth of brains," said Dr. Kretzschmar.

To help ensure the availability of high-quality brain-tissue samples, the European Union brought together brain banks from all over Europe in 2004. The new central brain bank joins a host of experienced experts and institutes in the field.

Among the main goals of the new consortium are to:

  • Promote brain banking as a research resource for European neuroscientists by providing high-quality human brain-tissue samples.

  • Determine the effect of pre- and postmortem parameters on preservation of DNA, RNA, and other substances.

  • Establish gold standards for tissue-handling quality control and ethics, leading to best practices for brain banking.

  • Provide training in brain banking and related methodology.

  • Promote future expertise in CNS research.

Implications for Psychiatric Illnesses

The BNE goes a long way toward harmonizing, sampling, and ensuring quality control, said Dr. Kretzschmar. At the same time, he said, the common database protects patient anonymity. "This all leads to high-quality brain banking."

Having access to a large number of brain-tissue specimens is advantageous for research not only into AD and PD but also into other diseases, including schizophrenia and other psychiatric illnesses, said Dr. Kretzschmar.

And allowing various research groups to access the same brain bank provides opportunities to network, he said, adding that it also has positive implications for access to Internet data banks.

That is not to say there are not some logistical barriers to overcome. One potential barrier is "the network of different laws" in the participating countries that govern tasks such s data collection, said Dr. Kretzschmar.

For example, some countries have relatively strict rules governing autopsies while others do not have any. Rules also vary on procedures such as informed consent. Dr. Kretzschmar said he would like to see more brain banks opened in the future.

The BNE Web site includes information for patients and donors as well as for scientists.

9th International Conference on Alzheimer's and Parkinson's Diseases: EU-sponsored session. Presented March 11, 2009.

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