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Brain Bank to Help in Treatment of PTSD

Close up portrait of Dr. Matthew Friedman

Dr. Matthew Friedman

By George Decker, Public Affairs Officer, VA National Center for PTSD
Monday, November 24, 2014

There are currently more than 50 brain banks in the United States. The focus of these brain tissue repositories is on investigating alcoholism, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, schizophrenia and a variety of neurological disorders. Yet there has never been a PTSD brain bank — until now.

With recently appropriated funding from Congress, the National Center for PTSD is leading a research consortium developing a national PTSD brain bank. This will be the first brain tissue repository dedicated to researching the physical impact of stress, trauma and PTSD on brain tissue, thereby advancing the scientific knowledge of PTSD, particularly PTSD biomarkers. Dr. Matthew Friedman, Senior Advisor to the Center and its former Executive Director, is directing the consortium. Plans are for the brain bank to become operational by early 2015.

According to Friedman, “The Leahy-Friedman National PTSD Brain Bank would be very grateful to accept tissue donations from Veterans who wish to donate their brains for scientific study after they die. We will establish a website where potential donors can make their wishes known. Brain bank staff will contact them and initiate in-depth discussions about donating tissue to the brain bank.”

Friedman expects the website will be launched within a month or two.

Since 2003, leading academic and research institutions have collaborated in an effort, led by Friedman and Dr. Robert Ursano, Chair of Psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USUHS), to establish a national PTSD brain bank. But various impediments, including lack of reliable funding, held up the project for a decade.

“We have wanted to do this for a long time, but only now have we received the funding we needed,” Friedman explained. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), a steadfast supporter of the Center’s mission to improve the lives of Veterans living with PTSD, spearheaded the successful effort to secure Congressional funding for the brain bank last year. Because of the pivotal roles played by Leahy and Friedman, the brain bank’s official name is “The Leahy-Friedman National PTSD Brain Bank.”

Sites in Vermont, Boston, Maryland and Connecticut

Like the National Center for PTSD, the brain bank is organized as a consortium with sites across the United States. Friedman directs the initiative from the Center’s Executive Division in White River Junction, Vermont. The primary site for receiving brain tissue is the VA Medical Center in Boston in conjunction with the National Center’s Boston-based Behavioral Science Division. The secondary receiving site is at the VA Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. The USUHS in Bethesda, Maryland serves as the primary assessment site while the National Center’s Clinical Neurosciences Division in West Haven, Connecticut is the primary research site.

The Leahy-Friedman National PTSD Brain Bank will be a national resource to support VA and other academic researchers. As Friedman and co-author Dr. William W. Harris foretold in “Toward a National PTSD Brain Bank” (Winter 2004 special issue of Psychiatry , edited by Ursano), “It is expected that applicants who wish to utilize tissue housed in the brain bank would submit their proposals for peer review by a scientific committee convened for this purpose. Prioritization of submitted proposals would be conducted along time-tested peer review procedures.”

The Leahy-Friedman National PTSD Brain Bank is a major advancement in the fight against PTSD.

“Although we have learned a great deal about abnormalities in brain structure and function from brain imaging research, there is no substitute for looking at the neurons themselves,” said Friedman. “Understanding the cellular and circuit contributions to abnormal brain activity in PTSD is critical in the search for potential biomarkers of susceptibility, illness and treatment response and for developing new treatments targeting the conditions at the cellular level. The National PTSD Brain Bank’s findings should help pave the way for new approaches to diagnosis and treatment of individuals with PTSD.”