Visitors to the Indiana Medical History Museum in Indianapolis may find the display of 19th-century brains a strange reminder of the building's past as an insane asylum, but research using the samples by a pathologist from the Indiana University School of Medicine could help the future of detecting mental illness.

George Sandusky, DVM, PhD, senior research professor of pathology and laboratory science at the IU School of Medicine, is working to extract DNA from brains preserved more than 100 years ago and displayed in jars at the museum. The goal is to improve diagnosis and treatment for psychological illnesses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder using a blood test.

"This work could make an impact on patient care—a huge impact,” says Sandusky. “It’s going to help diagnose patients with mental disorders quicker and faster."
Using brain donors from traditional sources to advance this goal only brings in about 12 new subjects per year. The museum collection, which includes over 400 specimens, could speed the arrival of new diagnoses and treatments for the mentally ill by decades, he adds.

The brain samples under investigation come from turn-of-the-century patients who suffered from mental disorders at Central State Hospital, an asylum established in the mid-1800s to house the state’s mentally ill. The museum is located in the former pathology building at Central State on the near west side of Indianapolis.
Sandusky was originally trying to determine whether the aging specimens contained viable genetic information. All tissues used in this research received ethical and legal approval from an internal review board at the state and at the university.

The breakthrough in the project arrived last summer after Sandusky and two undergraduate student researchers discovered that functional DNA could be isolated and extracted from the museum’s brain samples, despite their extreme age and the preservation techniques used by 19th-century doctors. "They preserved the brains with the best science of their time," says Sandusky. "The preservation techniques from the era were almost as good as ours from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. I was shocked by the quality."

Earlier tests conducted in 2010 yielded unusable results, but new technology—as well as experienced lab workers and cutting-edge test methods—ultimately "cracked the code."

The results support work by Alexander Niculescu, MD, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at the IU School of Medicine, who is seeking to advance personalized medicine in the treatment of mental illness using biomarkers for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and PTSD.

Niculescu is making advances in pinpointing potential biomarkers for mental illness through research conducted at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis. The samples from the Indiana Medical History Museum are being tested for the same telltale signs.

The goal is to use data from both studies to assist future physicians in creating a personal genetic profile for people suffering from psychiatric illnesses to ensure they are diagnosed quickly and accurately. The search for identifiable biomarkers will pioneer treatments in clinical practice by eliminating the current system of diagnosis, which requires significant trial and error.

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

Release Date: Dec. 6, 2011
Source: Indiana University School of Medicine