Brain banking is crucial for translational neuroscience research, providing postmortem brain tissue for research goals outside the scope of animal models. In particular, these specimens provide significant opportunity to advance knowledge of the cellular and molecular pathways that participate in neurological and psychiatric diseases. This is especially true when the biobank’s standard operation includes provision of well-documented demographic and clinical data along with high-quality specimens.
While published examinations of best practices for brain biobanking do exist (including operations, tissue quality markers, and ethical and legal frameworks), establishing a sustainable model for brain banking requires even more. To that end, Palmer-Aronsten et al. (2016) offered a dialogue-opening assessment of current practices and standards in brain banking.1
The research team created a 50-question online survey and invited 60 brain banks from 19 countries to participate. Of these, 24 brain banks from three geographical regions (10 from Europe and the United Kingdom, five from Australasia, and nine from Canada and the United States) responded, reflecting a 40% response rate. The majority (88%) commenced operation prior to 2000.
The researchers report that the participant brain banks’ collection sizes ranged from 150 to 3,000 cases, with a mean of four diagnostic groups collected by each bank. These included neurodegenerative disorders, psychiatric disorders, cerebrovascular disorders, inherited disorders, substance abuse, trauma, central nervous system tumors, metabolic disorders and inflammatory infectious disorders. A substantial 92% of the banks collected control tissue.
Most of the participant banks used preregistration donor programs (79%) and required consent by both the donor and next of kin (63%). Donation sources included donor programs (58%) and autopsy centers (42%), as well as family and specialist referral.
Accompanying data included donor information generally sourced from interviews and questionnaires completed with next of kin or treating physicians. Other potential information sources included medical examiners, police officers and research study coordinators. Collected information included demographics, country of origin, ethnicity, education, marital status, self-care independence, handedness, daily living activities, and diet and exercise.
All participant biobanks collecting postmortem data reported cause of death and postmortem interval. Some also reported systemic pathology (50%), toxicology (29%) and blood alcohol levels (17%). Most also tested cognitive function (75%), including through neuropsychology testing (78%) and questionnaires (67%).
For donor classification, 58% of participating brain banks relied on consensus diagnosis by trained clinicians. Most used validated instruments (68%) and applied the same diagnostic tools to classify both disease and control cases (90%). To define control cases, the majority reported use of neuropathological criteria, including Braak staging (79%), and excluded controls based on suicide (55%) and alcohol consumption (50%) but not smoking (87%).
For tissue quality markers, the majority of participant brain biobanks (67%) used postmortem interval to assess research suitability. Other measures included RNA integrity (58%), pH (50%), agonal factor (21%) and protein analysis (8%). Generally, cutoff values for RNA Integrity Number (RIN) ranged from greater than 5 to greater than 7, and cutoff values for pH ranged from 5 to 7. Eight (33%) biobanks indicated that the specific cutoff values for tissue quality could vary depending on study design.
When it came to cohorts, most reported that matching determinations were based on the requirements of the research project and/or tissue quality (73%), and fewer focused on standardized age range or gender (52%) for matching. The majority of participant brain banks scored collaboration with other banks as very or extremely important (74%) and indicated classification standardization as a high priority (70%).
Finally, the range for full-time staff members was zero to 15, with a mean of five. Participants biobanks also reported a range of zero to 10 for clinical assessment staff (mean of three, with 29% specifying psychiatrists in this position) and one to six for neuropathological assessment staff (mean of two, with 79% specifying neuropathologists in this position).
Palmer-Aronsten et al. offer this data as a review of current practices in brain biobanking. They intend this review to serve as an opening for conversations on standardization of best practices and industry collaboration for the purpose of establishing a sustainable model, ultimately benefiting neuroscience research.
1. Palmer-Aronsten, B., et al. (2016) “An international survey of brain banking operation and characterization practices,” Biopreservation and Biobanking [Epub ahead of print], doi: 10.1089/bio.2016.0003.