UT Austin has one of the world's largest collections of human brains in jars

The September 2021 issue of the MIT Technology Review is all about the human mind—and that's how I learned about the massive collection of bisected human brains at the University of Texas in Austin:

The University of Texas has one of the world's largest collections of preserved abnormal human brains. The 100 or so jars contain brains that once belonged to patients at the Austin State Hospital, a psychiatric facility. They were amassed over three decades by Coleman de Chenar, the hospital's resident pathologist, starting in the 1950s.

Tim Schallert, the collection's curator, believes the collection can be used not just for teaching, but also to help researchers come to a better understanding of what causes a number of psychological and neurological disorders.

Some of the jars are labelled with specific disorders, be it Down syndrome or lissencephaly. This doesn't necessarily mean that these conditions are actually visible in the physical structure of the brains. Given that they all came from a psychiatric hospital in Texas in the 50s, I suspect there may be some depressing, non-consensual stories behind some of them as well. But as long as the brains are preserved, UT Austin does intend to use them for study:

The collection has been scanned by MRI machines. Schallert hopes to recover and sequence DNA from the brains in order to correlate genetic abnormalities with physical ones, even without patient records.

There's also a coffee table book dedicated to these brains-in-jars, titled Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital, by Austin-based photographer Adam Voorhes, with accompany reporting and essays by Alex Hannaford. (Presumably Mr. Voorhes bears no familial relation to Jason Voorhees]

Hidden away out of sight in a forgotten storage closet deep within the bowels of the University of Texas State Mental Hospital languished a forgotten, but unique and exceptional, collection of 100 extremely rare, malformed, or damaged human brains preserved in jars of formaldehyde.

Decades later, in 2011, photographer Adam Voorhes discovered the brains and became obsessed with documenting them in close-up, high-resolution, large format photographs, revealing their oddities, textures, and otherworldly essence. Voorhes donned a respirator and chemical gloves, and began the painstaking process of photographing the collection. Desperate to know more about the provenance of the brains, Voorhes, together with journalist Alex Hannaford, traveled down the rabbit hole of the collection's history.

Sifting through a century's worth of university documents, the truth-seekers discovered that rival universities had bitterly fought over the collection. But after winning the "Battle for the Brains" (against Harvard University among others) the University of Texas at Austin secured the collection. Now, however, the collection has been reduced to half its original size and is in a state of neglect. Voorhes and Hannaford's hunt for the medical records became a hunt for the missing brains, but with no scientific or medical documents to pair with the body of photographs, Alex began following the trail to the researchers who had worked with them and the caretakers in whose trust they were placed. The result of the duo's efforts has been a revived interest in the collection with various science journals publishing writings and research about the brains. And the university is now creating MRI scans of the specimens and intends to showcase them at its new medical school. Alas, for now, the hunt for the missing brains seems to be far from over.

There's a similar brain jar collection at Yale University, too.

The world's largest collection of malformed brains [Adam Voorhes and Robin Finlay / MIT Technology Review]

Malformed: Forgotten Brains of the Texas State Mental Hospital [Adam Voorhes and Alex Hannaford]

Image: Alan Levine / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)