Inside a human brain bank, where frozen tubs preserve slices of spongy tissue

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

In plastic jars brimming with formaldehyde sit dozens of brains – each belonging to former teachers, doctors, accountants, plumbers – which are now bathing in preservation fluid for the sake of scientific research.

There are 82 brain banks in North America alone. This one lives in Bronx, New York, at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

The bank opened in 1982 to better understand Alzheimer’s patients. In 1990 it began looking at patterns of schizophrenia, too. And today, it keeps dozens of specimens sliced into thousands of pieces in an attempt to understand a raft of neurological disorders.

Here’s what it’s like inside the brain bank.


Dr. Vahram Haroutunian has been the brain bank’s director since the very beginning. He oversees the storage, preservation, and distribution of tissue to other banks for study.

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

In most cases, the bank stores more than a person’s brain. It also collects cerebrospinal fluid, muscle tissue, and DNA.

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Each brain gets tagged according to its particular donor and the neuropathology. Some arrive whole from families, while some get shipped from other labs.

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Dr. Haroutunian must handle the brains with care since they are coated in a mixture of formalin, methanol, and formaldehyde.

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

The bank has distributed specimens to more than 50 facilities both inside and outside the US. Its inventory has led to research being published in over 350 peer-reviewed articles.

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Each brain is cut in half upon arrival. One half sits in formaldehyde, but the other half …

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

… is sliced into cross-sections and flash-frozen in nitrogen. It lives out the remainder of its time in a freezer kept at -112 degrees Fahrenheit.

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

These tubs contain hundreds if not thousands of slices waiting to be cut into even smaller pieces for examination.

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

It’s up to the bank technicians to sort and itemize certain samples based on their intended destination or future role in academic studies.

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Turning full-sized specimens into smaller portions and keeping it all organized is nothing short of a herculean task. Dr. Haroutunian and his crew must have incredible attention to detail so as not to mix up specimens.

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Serial numbers help. Each slice eventually gets a unique ID that helps the technicians match a slice to a person’s specific case.

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

When it comes time to slice off a pre-frontal cortex or amygdala, one of the technicians will run the slice through a jigsaw.

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

The final product is a precisely cut sample whose severed portion can be studied or shipped out, while the remaining portion can go back with the rest of the freezer samples.

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters

In modern medicine, the brain bank is an invaluable element of studying the brain — still the most poorly understood organ in the human body.

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Carlo Allegri/Reuters