DNA Biomarkers: Scientist Probes Pickled Brains For Mental Illness Clues

What Pickled Brains Say About Mental Illness

Can DNA samples from the brains of long dead people help speed diagnosis in mental illness? According to an Indianapolis scientist who is working to extract DNA from the preserved brains of people who died more than a century ago, it could lead to new ways to detect and treat psychiatric illnesses.

"This work could make an impact on patient care - a huge impact," Dr. George Sandusky, senior research professor of pathology and laboratory science at the Indiana University School of Medicine, said in a written statement. "It's going to help diagnose patients with mental disorders quicker and faster."

The brains - more than 400 specimens in all - are part of a collection belonging to the Indiana Medical History Museum. The museum was used as an insane asylum in the 19th Century, and the brains come from mentally ill people who had resided there.

The brain specimens were collected during patient autopsies performed between 1986 and 1938, Livescience reported. Most languished on a shelf until Dr. Sandusky took note of them in 2010.

Will it really be possible to extract DNA from brains that were preserved so long ago? Dr. Sandusky is optimistic.

"They preserved the brains with the best science of their time," he said in the statement. "The preservation techniques from their era were almost as good as ours from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. I was shocked by the quality."

The goal of the research is to identify genetic biomarkers that indicate susceptibility to specific mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Biomarkers are widely used to identify people at risk for certain cancers but not for mental illness.

"If you come in with a psychiatric illness today, you can't really separate different mental disorders," Dr. Sandusky said. "You have to try several drugs before finding one that even works - and that may take months."

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