The organs, which arrived in 2016 at Duffel Psychiatric Hospital from the Corsellis collection in England, might date back 40 years but with modern methods, researchers can get down to the molecular level to compare them with healthy brain tissue.

Researcher Jeroen Schuermans holds a container filled with parts of a human brain, belonging to a collection of more than 3,000 brains that could provide insight into psychiatric diseases, at the psychiatric hospital in Duffel, Belgium. July 19, 2017.
Researcher Jeroen Schuermans holds a container filled with parts of a human brain, belonging to a collection of more than 3,000 brains that could provide insight into psychiatric diseases, at the psychiatric hospital in Duffel, Belgium. July 19, 2017.

A psychiatric hospital in Belgium is home to one of the world's largest collections of human brains, which researchers say could hold the key to developing new treatments for diseases such as psychosis, schizophrenia and severe depression.

The Duffel Psychiatric Hospital's more than 3,000 brains of diseased psychiatric patients had been part of an even larger brain collection started more than 40 years ago by British neuropathologist John Corsellis. The original Corsellis collection numbered around 8,500.

The London hospital that stored the brains had run out of space and needed to find a new home, eventually agreeing last year to send them to the Duffel hospital in northern Belgium.

"We went over there and adopted most of the brains that are relevant to psychiatric research," Manuel Morrens, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Antwerp, who oversees the collection said.

A cross section of one of the brains from the Corsellis collection in Belgium. July 19, 2017. (Reuters)
A cross section of one of the brains from the Corsellis collection in Belgium. July 19, 2017. (Reuters)

The Corsellis collection was kept in bell jars and Tupperware tubs in the psychiatric hospital in southeastern England, a collection taken from the mentally ill, epileptics, people with Alzheimer's and even boxers. Each pickled brain comes with its own medical file kept up until the death of the patient.

"Nowadays in Belgium, it's really hard, if not almost impossible, to get your hands on actual tissue of patients after they have deceased," Morrens said last year, due to the stricter ethical guidelines around collecting brain tissue.

Stored in formaldehyde and tucked away in ordinary plastic containers in the basement of the hospital, some of the brains are still completely intact and others have been sliced up. July 19, 2017. (Reuters)
Stored in formaldehyde and tucked away in ordinary plastic containers in the basement of the hospital, some of the brains are still completely intact and others have been sliced up. July 19, 2017. (Reuters)

Scientists say the older brains are the most interesting because they carry diseases that have not been treated with modern medicines.

By using methods developed more recently, researchers can see what molecular processes have taken place and compare them with healthy brains.

"You can really go into which proteins are active during certain phases of the illness," Morrens said. "This will really contribute to our understanding of what is going on in the brain."

The first results of their research will be available later this year.

Source: AFP