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Tissue-bank shortage: Brain child

Asking parents to donate a child's brain to research is emotionally fraught. Some researchers say that it is time to put aside the taboos.

David Amaral wanted to watch the young brain take shape. He thought that studying post-mortem brains under the microscope would help him to work out why children with autism often have abnormalities in the key structures that drive emotion and behaviour. But he soon found that existing brain banks couldn't give him what he needed. "It's just too hard to get high-quality tissue," he says. The banks may contain hundreds or even thousands of brains — but not from children, and not necessarily in the best condition.

Amaral, who is director of research at the MIND (Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders) Institute at the University of California, Davis, is not the only scientist eager for access to brains from children. The crucial stages of brain development span early fetal life through to the end of the teenage years; and destructive neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia are thought to arise partly because of faulty connections laid down during this time. Many researchers want to apply new technologies, including increasingly sensitive molecular analyses and ever smarter microscopy, to developing brains to create a dynamic picture of what goes wrong.
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