In Montreal, research on depression is based on a brain bank

In Montreal, research on depression is based on a brain bank

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Canada’s largest brain bank provides samples to researchers around the world. Taken from the deceased who suffered from mental disorders, the brains are also studied at the site. They provide a better understanding of the biological mechanisms at work in a wide variety of neurological diseases, including depression.

From our correspondent in Montreal,

On the fourth floor of the Douglas Research Center, in the heart of Montreal, Éric opens a double door with a big smile. Mental health research center maintenance staff don’t often get a chance to break into this industry, he says. A long corridor opens before us. On the walls, neurons are painted in all colors. On the left, five closed doors: these give access to the treasure of the university center.

With a beep, one of these doors opens into a small room. Plastic boxes filled with a yellowish liquid, formalin, which preserves cutouts of human brains, are stored on a shelf. In front of them are refrigerators with billboards that say “-79 degrees.” Inside, other brain slices are stored. Behind the shocking aspect of this scene, a hope: better understand the origin of our emotions, better treat and support people suffering from mental disorders.

thousands of brains

Gustavo Turecki sits up straight in his chair. In one corner of the office, many scientific awards are displayed. In his fifties, with a penetrating gaze and a calm voice, the co-director of the largest brain bank in Canada explains the raison d’être of his institution: ” The bank is a collection of brain tissue from people who have died. Some had brain problems, others did not. The goal is to better understand the least known organ of our body. »

With more than 3,600 brains, the Montreal Brain Bank is one of the largest banks in the world. Each year, it provides more than a thousand brain tissue samples to researchers around the world, from Japan to Australia to the United States and Europe.

For obvious ethical reasons, it is impossible to directly study human brains in action: open skull operations, which are dangerous, are not only used to treat an individual. The only way to have access to a brain is, therefore, to obtain it from a donation, decided before or after death.

ethical issues

As a general rule, the brain should be removed no later than 24 hours after death, to prevent tissue damage from decomposition. A conditioning factor that sometimes puts Gustavo Turecki’s team in a delicate situation. ” If the person has not accepted or refused living organ donation, you should speak within 24 hours with the family to find out if they agree to have the deceased’s brain removed. Part of the team is dedicated to it, because you have to be tactful “, explains the researcher.

These precious organs are then cut into one to two centimeter slices, then stored, waiting to be studied. Researchers requesting to obtain brain samples are strictly supervised. They must present a formal request to their ethics committee, meet a series of criteria… Once validated, the request is studied and approved in turn by the brain bank. How are samples shipped? ” By fedex. This is not a joke ! Although, of course, there is a whole procedure with customs to send biological material “Answers, amused, Gustavo Turecki.

studying depression

The researcher himself is a beneficiary of this bank. Gustavo Turecki works specifically on the influence of trauma on the functioning of our brain, in particular how the social environment can interact with the genome and increase the risk of depression or suicide.


It has long been known that our social experiences influence these phenomena. Only, the neuroscientist discovered that these can also directly influence the functioning of the brain, and plunge it into this depressive state: “ Our research has shown that an individual’s traumatic experience early in life will affect brain structures that are important in regulating the stress response. »

These studies have enormous potential for people with depression. “ What pushes me is to understand how the brain works and what happens in someone who is depressed. If we can better understand and manage what happens when we are depressed, we can help many people. the researcher waits.

The brains stored by the bank at the Douglas Research Center are being analyzed with increasing precision. The investigation is progressing rapidly, explains Gustavo Turecki: “ There is a revolution in the science of the human genome. Single-cell genomics allows us to study one cell at a time, dissect thousands of cells, interrogate each cell to understand how it behaves, and map organs and how they function in unprecedented ways. “. With, ultimately, the hope of advances to support people in a state of depression.


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