Tuesday, June 12th, 2012
A failed freezer at McLean Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard University, has resulted in severe damage to one-third of the world’s largest collection of autism brain samples. The debacle, according to The Boston Globe, could set back autism research by decades:
An official at the renowned brain bank in Belmont discovered that the freezer had shut down in late May, without triggering two alarms. Inside, they found 150 thawed brains that had turned dark from decay; about a third of them were part of a collection of autism brains.
“This was a priceless collection,’’ said Dr. Francine Benes, director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center, where the brains were housed. “You can’t express its value in dollar amounts,’’ said Benes, who is leading one of two internal investigations into the freezer failure.
The damage to these brains could slow autism research by a decade as the collection is restored, said Carlos Pardo, a neuropathologist and associate professor of neurology at Johns Hopkins University.
The collection, owned by the advocacy and research organization Autism Speaks, “yields very, very important information that allows us to have a better understanding of what autism is, as well as the contribution of environmental and immune factors,’’ said Pardo, whose 2004 study of brains stored in the bank was the first to find that autism involves the immune system. “The benefit has been great.’’
Image: Lab equipment, via Shutterstock.
Tuesday, May 1st, 2012
An article in The New York Times profiles an innovative research technique in practice in Harvard University’s psychology department, which is giving scientists new ways of understanding how–and when–infants learn and develop social and cognitive skills.
Elizabeth S. Spelke is a professor of psychology founded the Harvard University Laboratory for Developmental Studies to measure what infants’ gazes tell us about how their brains are working and growing. What Spelke and her colleagues learn has implications for both child development and adult psychology.
From the Times:
Dr. Spelke studies babies not because they’re cute but because they’re root. “I’ve always been fascinated by questions about human cognition and the organization of the human mind,” she said, “and why we’re good at some tasks and bad at others.”
But the adult mind is far too complicated, Dr. Spelke said, “too stuffed full of facts” to make sense of it. In her view, the best way to determine what, if anything, humans are born knowing, is to go straight to the source, and consult the recently born.
Dr. Spelke is a pioneer in the use of the infant gaze as a key to the infant mind — that is, identifying the inherent expectations of babies as young as a week or two by measuring how long they stare at a scene in which those presumptions are upended or unmet. “More than any scientist I know, Liz combines theoretical acumen with experimental genius,” Dr. [Susan] Carey, [a co-founder of the lab] said. Nancy Kanwisher, a neuroscientist at M.I.T., put it this way: “Liz developed the infant gaze idea into a powerful experimental paradigm that radically changed our view of infant cognition.”
The article goes on to describe some of the things Spelke has discovered about infant brains, including that they babies expect physical objects to remain consistent, can understand the basics of “more” and “less,” and have no ability to orient themselves based on landmarks or physical cues.
Image: Baby with flash card, via Shutterstock.