Brain bank at CU aims to help find cause, cure of MS |

Brain bank at CU aims to help find cause, cure of MS

Jennifer Brown
The Denver Post
Andy Cross, The Denver PostHaley Steinert, a research assistant in neurology, opens the door to a freezer holding samples of human brains at the University of Colorado School of Medicine repository on the Anschutz campus.

The vast and chilly room buzzes with the whirl of 10 cooling fans and 62 giant freezers, machines so high tech they can send text messages to warn of intruders or when their temperature drops much below minus-112 degrees.

Cameras scan this repository at the University of Colorado medical campus, protecting the valuables frozen inside: pieces of prostate cancer, fetal stem cells and slices of human brain damaged by multiple sclerosis.

“It’s like walking into the twilight zone for me,” said Karen Wenzel, executive director of the Rocky Mountain MS Center.

With the recent relocation of the center’s brain bank, CU becomes home to the largest MS-exclusive collection of human brains in North America for the purpose of finding the cause and cure of the neurological disease.

The bank has about 350 brain slices and eventually, with additional freezers, will have the capacity to store thousands at its new state-of-the-art digs.

At the request of scientists researching multiple sclerosis across the globe, the brain samples are packed in dry ice and Styrofoam and shipped by next-day air.

“MS can be quite a devastating disease, and we still have a lot to learn about the biology,” said Dr. Timothy Vollmer, a neuroimmunologist and professor at the School of Medicine.

At least 400,000 people in the United States have multiple sclerosis, and within 15 years of the disease’s onset, about half of those people will have to use wheelchairs or walkers.

The best way to study MS is to look at a brain from a patient who has died. Brain scans of the living will show gray patches where a substance in the brain called myelin has died.

Within this scar tissue, the brain struggles to send messages telling the body to move or think. But to study the disease at a cellular level, scientists must look at the tissue under a microscope.

Sandee Walling, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 16 years ago, is among the 1,400 people who have pledged to donate their brains to the Rocky Mountain bank upon death.

“The least I can do for everybody is try and contribute something to a cause and a cure,” said Walling, a Denver woman whose disease has left her sensitive to heat and depth perception. She used a walker early on in her diagnosis but believes she regained mobility through therapeutic pilates and yoga.

“I know it’s something that I have to do. Period,” she said.

Read more:

Support Local Journalism