BEDFORD, Mass. - Up on a shelf at the Boston University Brain Bank at the Veterans Administration Hospital are a row of large jars, each with a human brain that has been set in a liquid fixative. To the casual observer, the inert matter on display looks like something on the order of strawberry yogurt. None of them is the same size or shape.
"Every one of them is different," says Dr. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist who oversees the BU Brain Bank. "In fact, brains are like faces in that no two are ever alike."
The BU Brain Bank is one of 40 or so in the United States - approximately 30 of which are dedicated to the study of Alzheimer's disease, and another 10 of which specialize in the investigation of other diseases. But McKee says the BU Brain Bank is the only one that has undertaken a longitudinal assessment of athletes. In conjunction with the Sports Legacy Institute, founded by former Harvard football player Chris Nowinski and neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Cantu to study the effects of concussion, the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy operates out of here under the supervision of McKee, who has teamed with Nowinski, Cantu and BU associate neurology professor Dr. Robert Stern as co-directors of CSTE.
Located in an unassuming brick building, which houses a staff that includes McKee and four others, the BU Brain Bank is the repository of 1,000 brains: 400 are kept as "fixed specimens" while 600 or so are stored in freezers at a minus-80 degrees. McKee says that when the brains come in, they are photographed, weighed and bisected. One part is flash frozen with dry ice and transferred to a freezer, which is jammed with plastic bags full of brain specimens that have been carefully inventoried.
"Storage is a continual problem," McKee says. "We keep having to buy new freezers. We had some problem with one being temperamental and we had to do some juggling. But they are back up now."
So how long are the brains preserved?
McKee says, "Indefinitely. Researchers will have access to these brains years from now."
Seventy percent of the donated brains were afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, 20 percent had other diseases and 10 percent are "control specimens," which is to say they came from a person who died while considered still cognitively intact. McKee says "controls" are especially valuable, if only because they are generally so hard to come by.
"We need 'controls' to compare them with the diseases we see," McKee says. "The problem is that you have to be studied during life, you have to come in periodically and be evaluated to be certain that you are functionally normally. So that takes an altruistic person."
Up in the hallway are enlarged photographs of some of the cases McKee has worked on: One is of the brain of a boxer, another the brain of a football player and still another shows just how far brain science has come in 50 years. It is the photograph of a brain that had been savaged by a prefrontal lobotomy, a hideous procedure developed for the treatment of mental health issues and for which neurosurgeon Egas Moniz won a Nobel Prize in 1949.