Brain banks are a powerful tool for alcohol research

There are currently only two brain banks in the world that can provide tissues for alcohol research, according to symposium proceedings published in the February issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. Yet brain banks are a powerful tool for understanding diseases such as alcoholism, say researchers, and the life-saving contributions of both research and transplantation must be emphasized to prospective tissue donors.

"The only brain banks for alcohol-related research are in Australia," said Clive Harper, symposium organizer and professor of neuropathology at The University of Sydney and Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. "The main one is the Tissue Resource Center (TRC) in Sydney and there is a second smaller, more recently developed bank in Brisbane." Harper said both were initiated and developed by local researchers with long-term interests in alcohol-related brain damage.

The symposium took place during the joint June 2002 Research Society on Alcoholism/International Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism meeting in San Francisco. Its main objective was to alert research scientists to the fact that brain tissues from people with alcohol-related disorders are now available and can be used for a wide range of structural and molecular techniques. Presenters also reviewed protocols designed to ensure the high quality of stored material and clinical information about each case. Some of the key points were:

- A "good brain bank" involves consideration of a number of quality-related factors, including: good pathological and clinical characterization of the tissue; standardized and consistent handling and processing; and systematic and reliable assessment and diagnosis of all cases.

- The intent to establish the first systematic brain tissue bank and donor program for neuropsychiatric disorders in Japan has demonstrated the need for collaboration among clinicians, researchers, patients, family members and caregivers.

- MRI scans on post-mortem brain specimens may help resolve inconsistencies found between in vivo (while living) and post-mortem studies of the brain.

- Age, gender, mode of death, the terminal events leading to death (agonal state), refrigeration interval, post-mortem interval, autopsy interval, and time and type of storage may have effects on tissue samples and all require careful consideration, notation, and quantitation where possible.

- All of the preceding factors are essential for rigorous investigation, and influence the possible scope of experimentation. Furthermore, neurological or psychiatric disorders other than alcoholism should either be noted for exclusion from the brain bank or clearly identified in comparison groups.

"One of the important advantages of a brain bank is that the same cases can be used by a number of different research groups using different approaches and techniques," said Harper. "That information can then be compared to help us understand the effects of alcohol on the brain. For example, we have known for many years that excessive drinking can cause brain shrinkage, however, the mechanism for this is not yet understood. We selected cases from the bank that had brain shrinkage and sent those tissues to research groups in Brisbane and Austin, Texas. These groups were able to show that some of the genes that control the manufacture of the sheath that wraps around nerve fibers (myelin) appear to be turned down or ‘down-regulated’ in the drinking group, which may be a factor in the brain shrinkage. We also know from magnetic resonance imaging studies that alcohol-related brain shrinkage is potentially reversible. Collectively, these findings may help us understand the underlying mechanisms which could, in turn give us a means to either prevent or more rapidly reverse this part of alcohol brain damage."

There are virtually no differences between brain banks for alcoholism and those for other diseases. "The principles of collection, storage, dispersal and use of tissues are identical," said Harper. "There are now many hundreds of brain banks in the world but each tends to focus on a specific disorder like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. It is impossible for one center to collect and store brain tissues for all of the different brain diseases."

Harper added that the ultimate goal of all brain banks, regardless the disease examined, is to help other researchers quickly and easily access tissues for projects designed to discover the causes, effects and cures of brain diseases. "It takes many years to collect enough cases in a brain bank so that they can be used in research projects," he said. "Individual researchers do not have the time or financial support to wait, say 10 years, to begin their project. Now they can contact an appropriate brain bank and have tissues transferred to them anywhere in the world in a matter of weeks."

Funding for this Addiction Science Made Easy project is provided by the Addiction Technology Transfer Center National Office, under the cooperative agreement from the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment of SAMHSA.

Articles were written based on the following published research:

Harper, C., Garrick, T., Matsumoto, I., Pfefferbaum, A., Adalsteinsson, E., Sullivan, E.V., Dodd, P., Lewphi, Lx., Butterworth, R. (February 2003). How important are brain banks for alcohol research? Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 27(2), 310-324.