Whoever said preserved brains from the 1890s were of no use, except as hors d'oeuvres for the zombies in the coming apocalypse, was apparently wrong. As Scientific American's Virginia Hughes reports, researchers are extracting DNA from the Indiana Medical History Museum's collection of preserved autopsied brains to study the genetic causes of mental illness. "Until the late 1960s the museum was the pathology department of the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane. The bits of brain in the jars were collected during patient autopsies performed between 1896 and 1938. Most of the jars sat on a shelf until the summer of 2010, when Indiana University School of Medicine pathologist George Sandusky began popping off the lids," Hughes says. "Frustrated by a dearth of postmortem brain donations from people with mental illness, Sandusky … seized the chance to search this neglected collection for genes that contribute to mental disorders."
Other researchers around the country are now getting into the act, searching museums and hospitals for preserved bits of brain to use in studies of mental illness. Sandusky is first planning to test the old tissue to check its usefulness in the endeavor. He is screening the DNA for genes that researchers have already linked to schizophrenia, Hughes says. And he plans to look for RNA, which may reveal which genes were over- or under-expressed in the tissue, she adds.