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University of Texas looks for clues after 100 human brains are lost

Twenty-eight years ago, the Austin State Hospital transferred about 200 brains stored in jars of formaldehyde to the University of Texas for educational and research purposes. Now about half are missing, apparently including the brain of Charles Whitman, who went on a murderous shooting spree from the UT Tower in 1966.

“We think somebody may have taken the brains, but we don’t know at all for sure,” Tim Schallert, a psychology professor, said Tuesday.

His co-curator of the collection, Lawrence Cormack, also a psychology professor, said, “It’s entirely possible word got around among undergraduates and people started swiping them for living rooms or Halloween pranks.”

The mystery is explored in a new book, “Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital.” Author Alex Hannaford traces the history of the collection, such as it could be determined, and photographer Adam Voorhes provides striking images of the 100 remaining brains.

“We are committed to treating the brain specimens with respect and are disheartened to learn that some of them may be unaccounted for,” UT said in a statement. “The university plans to investigate the circumstances surrounding this collection since it came here nearly 30 years ago. The brains that are now on campus are actively used as a teaching tool and carefully curated by faculty.”

Under a 1986 agreement with the state hospital, UT agreed to take “temporary possession” of the collection. The agreement called for the hospital to remove patient-identifying data to protect confidentiality as required by state and federal laws.

Nonetheless, it seems likely that Whitman’s brain was part of the collection. “It would make sense it would be in this group,” Schallert said, adding, “We can’t find that brain.”

Whitman’s rampage would eventually take 16 lives, including those of his mother and wife, whom he stabbed to death before climbing the Tower. His note requesting an autopsy to determine if he had a brain tumor confirmed just that, although it’s doubtful the pecan-sized growth had anything to do with his impulse to kill, some medical experts have said.

According to an article posted by KUT, a unit of UT, the state hospital amassed the collection of brains through the efforts of one of its physicians, Coleman de Chenar, presumably by harvesting them from patients at the psychiatric hospital who died in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The hospital apparently had run out of storage space.

“I only had room for 100,” Schallert said of his psychology lab, which eventually was assigned the collection, so half of it was transferred to the basement of the university’s Animal Resources Center building.

“They are no longer in the basement,” Cormack said.

The 100 brains still in UT’s possession have been transferred to the Norman Hackerman Building, where they are being scanned with high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging equipment.

“These MRI images will be both useful teaching and research tools,” Cormack said. “It keeps the brains intact.”

Just how useful preserved brains can be “depends a great deal on how they were prepared, how well they have been preserved and maintained and how well the original donors were characterized,” said Vahram Haroutunian, who directs the Mount Sinai NIH Brain and Tissue Repository in New York. “How well were diagnoses made, how good are the records on them, can one go back and use the records to do more, to rediagnose using more modern standards for diagnosis?

The missing UT brains were preserved in a solution of formaldehyde in water. That practice makes brain tissue suitable for various kinds of research, but frozen brains are better for genetic analysis, Haroutunian said.

About half of the 1,800 brains at the Mount Sinai brain bank are preserved in formalin, Haroutunian said. The other half are frozen.

The 1986 agreement said UT would receive autopsy reports relating to the collection.

“It would be tremendously helpful, but I don’t believe we have them,” Cormack said. “When Tim (Schallert) got involved, all that existed were the brains. There were no associated records” other than brief notations such as ‘Parkinson’s disease’ or ‘Alzheimer’s.’ There is no psychiatric information, and that is a tragedy. Whoever first got the autopsy reports may have put them somewhere and not told anyone. At this point that’s just a mystery.”

Questions about the collection began to emerge in 2011, when Voorhes, on assignment for Scientific American magazine, visited UT to photograph brains. Schallert showed him a glass cabinet filled with brains, in a closet shared with chemistry materials. Some of the brains were from people with Down syndrome or meningitis.

“It shocked me,” Voorhes said, that the brains had come through the mental hospital, given that some of those diseases are not treated as mental illness today. “I was shaken.”

He said he felt they were “very rare, very special and should be documented.” He contacted Hannaford, a friend, and they collaborated on the book.

As for Whitman’s brain, Cormack isn’t convinced it was ever in the collection. “Frankly,” he said, “to me it smells of urban legend.”

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