The Danish Brain Collection

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The Danish Brain Collection

The collection of 9,479 brains from Danish patients diagnosed with dementia, schizophrenia, mania, and major depression among others is stored in a basement at the University of Southern Denmark (recently moved from Aarhus to Odense). The Danish brain collection is one of the largest of its kind in the world.

From 1945 to 1985, brain material from nearly 9,500 psychiatric patients who were autopsied at the Danish mental hospitals has been collected.

Although the project hasn’t been a secret, it’s not openly discussed either. The significant number of brains from people diagnosed with dementia, schizophrenia, mania, and major depression is unequalled and enables researchers to conduct studies of large samples.

The Danish Brain Collection
The materials can also be used to examine the effect of various diseases on brain anatomy. Photo: Aarhus University Hospital.

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The Brain Collection has significant scientific value due to its huge size and varied pathology – including some rare diseases. In addition, most of the brains come from people who have not received any modern medical treatment, and thereby enables researchers to investigate the effect of modern treatment.

The materials can also be used to examine the effect of various diseases on brain anatomy, to investigate diagnostic approaches for brain diseases, and to analyze genetic mutations and epigenetic DNA/RNA alterations in the brain tissue of individuals with different conditions.

Two doctors had an idea after WWII. Erik Stromgren and Larus Einarson were the architects. After roughly five years, pathologist Knud Aage Lorentzen took over the institute, and spent the next three decades building the collection.

The Danish Brain Collection
Scientific findings, data, and material resulting from studies using the Brain Collection will be added back into the brain bank infrastructure. Photo: SDU

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Many scientific studies only require tissue from a few individuals or groups of 10‒20 subjects. However, when selecting subjects, psychiatric diagnoses as well as factors such as sex, age, course of disease, treatment, and comorbidities must be taken into account. Thus, sampling cases from a large set of subjects is beneficial – especially when matching groups are needed for comparison. Only few brains to choose from is often a limiting factor in brain research. Therefore, the large number of brains in the Danish Brain Collection is important – even if only tissue from relatively few brains will be examined.

it is usually impossible to take a sample of tissue from the brain of a person who is alive and in addition to that, few people with psychiatric disorders or dementia are autopsied when they die. Studies of animal brains are also less helpful as the human brain has functions probably unique to humans. This means that the large number of brains in the collection is a remarkable source of information, to bridge the gap between clinical and experimental studies on animals and tissue cultures.

The Danish Brain Collection
The Brain Collection has significant scientific value due to its huge size and varied pathology – including some rare diseases.

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There are roughly 5,500 brains with dementia; 1,400 with schizophrenia; 400 with bi-polar disorder; 300 with depression, and more.

Scientific findings, data, and material resulting from studies using the Brain Collection will be added back into the brain bank infrastructure, thus ensuring continuous enrichment of the Danish Brain Collection and its scientific value.

The Danish Brain Collection, written by Tor Kjolberg