Unlocking one of many nondescript doors in a long hallway at the Croatian Institute for Brain Research, neuroscientist Miloš Judaš switches on the lights and steps aside. "Here it is," he says. The cavernous room is filled with row after row of floor-to-ceiling shelves, nearly all of them crammed with glass jars or plastic buckets. Judaš points to one jar, where a black spot mars a bone-white brain not much larger than a plum. "Lesion," he says. "Typical in premature birth, but those babies tend to survive now."
The Zagreb Neuroembryological Collection and Brain Tissue Bank contains 1,160 human brains ranging from the fifth week after conception to 91 years of age, plus 130,000 stained histologic slides or sections, some fixed and others frozen. Ivica Kostović, director of the Croatian Institute for Brain Research (CIBR), began accumulating normal and pathologic specimens in 1974, after his return from Johns Hopkins University. His stockpile continues to grow. Croatia does not have an organ donation program, so specimens instead come from autopsies performed at the university's departments of pathology, gynecologic pathology, and forensic medicine, Judaš says.
Fetal material was available more frequently before the 1990s, largely due to a higher prevalence of hypoxic-ischemic damage in the brains of premature babies, he adds. More preemies survive today, but many end up with cerebral palsy or other cognitive, motor, and sensory deficits - an impetus for Judaš's work.
For more than 20 years, he has mapped the cellular and subcellular development of the central nervous system in prenatal and postnatal brains. In 2005, by correlating histochemical and magnetic resonance imaging, his team offered an explanation for the complex cognitive, sensory, and motor deficits in survivors of periventricular white matter lesions: a two-punch injury to nerve fibers connecting parts of the cortex to each other or other sections of the brain (Am J Neuroradiol, 26:2671-84, 2005).
Judaš and Kostović are coauthors of two upcoming papers: One maps changes in the basal dendrites of two classes of neurons in subjects that ranged from a 1-week-old term newborn to 91 years (Cereb Cortex, e-published July 25, 2007); the other, in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, reviews transient patterns of cortical lamination, and concludes that treatment for perinatal brain damage should rely on identifying the damaged system, stimulating any preserved pathways, and intensifying treatment early in the development of corticocortical connections.
The origins of the CIBR coincided with the country's declaration of independence from the former Yugoslavia in 1991. War and economic troubles conspired to delay CIBR's opening for more than five years. In the interim, Judaš helped document and publish accounts of Serbian atrocities, including massacres of Croatian civilians.
Now CIBR's building houses the first modern laboratory built in Croatia after 1923. Affiliated with Zagreb University's medical school, the institute applies molecular, cellular, and clinical research to the study of neurologic, cognitive, and mental disorders. As do many other neuroscience institutes. CIBR routinely forms partnerships with colleagues across Europe, the United States, and Japan by offering them something they need: the brain collection.
Researchers have several other larger brain collections from which to choose. The Blackburn-Neumann Collection at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, for example, contains 15,000 specimens, but the most recent ones date back to 1982. The museum is still adding to its Yakolev-Haleem Collection, which contains computer image analysis of its 1,570 specimens.
Paško Rakić, chairperson of Yale University's neurobiology department and an émigré from the former Yugoslavia, says he often calls CIBR when his lab needs human material or data. US collections mostly employed what are now outmoded histology methods and are not being replenished with new specimens, whereas CIBR's is constantly accepting new donations, says Rakić. Other brain banks "are mostly dead."