Europe's largest psychiatric brain bank is coming to Antwerp

Date: 4 August 2016

Introduction: UAntwerp and Psychiatric Hospital Duffel to take charge of unique Corsellis Collection.

Last week saw the move of more than 3000 brains from London to Antwerp. Psychiatric Hospital Duffel and the University of Antwerp are delighted with the extraordinary transfer. According to Professor Manuel Morrens, this unique collection offers “a huge opportunity to extend our knowledge of brain disorders”.

British neuropathologist John Corsellis started the brain bank at Runwell Hospital in Essex, near London, in the early 1950s. Post-mortem examinations were carried out on almost all of the hospital’s patients who died, after which their brains were retained. Following the death of Corsellis and his colleague Bruton, management of the collection (8000 brains) was transferred to the West London Mental Health Trust. In recent years, the brain bank has been housed in St Bernard’s Hospital in Ealing.

A lack of space and other issues triggered the search for a new home for the collection, which now contains more than 3000 brains relevant to psychiatric research (schizophrenia, depression, addiction, etc.). PhD student Livia De Picker got in touch with the British scientists in charge of the collection, the first step in a process that culminated in the valuable collection making its journey across the Channel last week.

“It is the largest psychiatric brain bank in Europe, perhaps even the world”, says Prof. Manuel Morrens. Morrens is director of research at Psychiatric Hospital Duffel and a professor at the Collaborative Antwerp Psychiatric Research Institute (CAPRI), which is part of the University of Antwerp.

“If a new home had not been found for the collection, the brains would have been destroyed. That would’ve been a great shame, because this collection is incredibly valuable. Corsellis actually began his collection at a time when the first psychiatric medicines were just coming onto the market. Many patients never received any treatment, which means that scientists can now research certain disorders using these ‘uncontaminated’ brains. The post-mortem brain tissue we see today has very often been affected by years of treatment with various types of medication.”

Crucial importance
In total, 3348 brains – and the patient records that go with them – have been moved into a well-ventilated basement storage facility at Psychiatric Hospital Duffel. There, CAPRI staff will carry out research into the role of neuroinflammation in the development of brain disorders such as depression and schizophrenia.

Postdoctoral researcher Violette Coppens said that she and her colleagues were “very excited” about the transfer of the brain bank. “It’s not always easy to carry out post-mortem examinations on the brains of psychiatric patients, mainly because of the strict regulations. But examining brains directly is really of crucial importance if we want to understand the pathophysiology behind psychiatric disorders.”