Researchers say that differences in donated brains could help figure out how to help autistic children learn to speak, interact more easily with others and avoid the repetitive behaviours that define the condition. Whereas brain banks for schizophrenia, Parkinson’s and bipolar disorder have been around for decades, interest in collecting and looking at autistic brains began only about a decade ago, said Margaret Esiri, emeritus professor of neuropathology at Oxford University and director of the UK Brain Bank for Autism and Related Developmental Research.
The search began so late in part because the awareness of autism has only risen in recent years, now turning up in one in every 88 US children, according to the latest figures from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also took a while to focus on the biological aspects of autism. As recently as the 1960s many scientists blamed the condition on bad parenting; decades later some still saw it as primarily a behaviour problem.
But science is now ready to fully explore the biology of the autistic brain, says Esiri. “Until the last 20 years or so, we probably didn’t know enough to be able to make the most of brain tissue,” she says. “It seems an ideal opportunity to strike now.”
However, the loss at Harvard means there are fewer than 200 autism brains stored in banks in the US and Europe. The University of Maryland has a collection of about 50; Oxford University’s Brain Bank for Autism and Related Developmental Research has collected 21 in its three years of existence; and a year-old bank at the University of California, Davis’ MIND Institute has four. The banks, with the support of the US federal government, are collaborating now, sharing what they learn from each brain through an online database.
This historic lack of brains available for autism research “is just pathetic,” says Cynthia Schumann, head of the MIND Institute’s Brain Endowment for Autism Research Sciences (BEARS) program.
Two hundred brains might be enough if autism were a minor condition, caused by a single factor and having the same set of symptoms in everyone. But it’s not. Some people are significantly disabled socially and intellectually; others see their autism as giving them a unique and valuable perspective on the world. Some cases are caused by single-gene mutations, others are of unclear origin, triggered perhaps by dozens of genetic flukes, or something in the environment, or both. Around 20% of children with the diagnosis seem to grow out of many of its symptoms, the rest feel its effects for life.
To really figure out autism, scientists say they need to examine brains that represent this full spectrum of conditions, both at the earliest stages of life when the brain is first developing, and later, when patterns have been set. And this means they need something along the order of several hundred donations.
One person who takes brain bank donations personally is Manuel Casanova, a neuropathologist at the University of Louisville, in Kentucky. He started two brain banks earlier in his career and shifted much of his research focus to autism after his grandson was diagnosed on the severe end of the spectrum. The boy, the son of his eldest daughter, was named Bertrand after the British polymath Bertrand Russell, because everyone expected that any child of his daughter’s and her husband’s would be extremely intelligent. But Bertrand, 5, can’t speak, scores very low on IQ tests and lacks basic motor skills.
Brain tissue research hasn’t been emphasised enough in autism research, he says. Genetics research may take decades between a basic discovery and a treatment, but Casanova thinks the route could be shorter for brain research because it focuses on the actual functioning of the brain. “We should fund studies that are able to make a difference now for the lives of the patients,” he says. “Finding something abnormal within the brain from postmortem studies can make a difference.”