Public Release: 

Research on autism furthers with new brain tissue collection program

UT Southwestern Medical Center


IMAGE: This image depicts Dr. Carol Tamminga. view more

Credit: UT Southwestern

DALLAS - June 17, 2014 - To promote greater understanding of autism, UT Southwestern Medical Center has launched a regional brain tissue collection program that will support research on this condition, which affects an estimated one in 68 children.

As an inaugural member of Autism BrainNet, UT Southwestern is one of four academic sites nationwide that will collect, store, and distribute brain tissue to scientists studying this disease. The Simons Foundation, Autism Speaks, and the Autism Science Foundation last year created Autism BrainNet and, more recently, an outreach program and tissue donation registration site, It Takes Brains.

UT Southwestern will serve as a collection and storage site for autistic and normal brain tissue samples from the South-Central and Midwest regions of the U.S. Samples will then be distributed to qualified researchers around the world, with the common goal of accelerating autism research.

"The recognized incidence of autism has increased dramatically over the past 10 years," said Dr. Carol Tamminga, Chair of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern. "Because we know so little about the molecular brain mechanisms of autism, research with this tissue is extremely important so that we can learn about its neural networks and identify new targets for novel therapies."

With autistic brain tissue samples more readily available, "we will be able to study how the brain fails molecularly and generates the social abnormalities found in this disorder," said Dr. Tamminga, holder of the Lou and Ellen McGinley Distinguished Chair in Psychiatric Research, the Communities Foundation of Texas, Inc. Chair in Brain Science, and the McKenzie Foundation Chair in Psychiatry I.

Results obtained with the banked tissues will be compared to brain imaging, treatment, and genetic studies of autistic patients at UT Southwestern in a continuing effort to understand and treat autism. The Autism BrainNet initiative also will enhance studies that are underway on autism-related conditions, such as Fragile X Syndrome. Work in the UT Southwestern laboratories of Dr. Kimberly Huber, Professor of Neuroscience; Dr. Jay Gibson, Associate Professor of Neuroscience; and Dr. John Sweeney, Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, has linked similar neuronal firing changes in humans and mouse models of the Fragile X gene mutation, which requires further study using brain tissue samples as part of biomarker research.

Other institutions participating in Austim BrainNet include: the University of California, Davis MIND Institute, the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, and the Harvard University/Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. Additional sites are expected to join in the future.

The focus of the It Takes Brains website is to educate families affected by autism so they may better understand the need for brain tissue donation, and to encourage their registration with Autism BrainNet to potentially increase donations.

As discussed on the It Takes Brains website, by studying brain tissue, researchers nationwide have already discovered that:

  • Children with autism have different underlying brain structures than typically developing children, and an overabundance of nerve cells in an area of the brain involved in social and communication skills.
  • The brains of autistic people have fewer oxytocin receptors than the brains of unaffected people. Oxytocin is a hormone that has an influence on social behavior.
  • There appear to be structural differences in the brains of people with autism, including differences in the number and size of neurons and the presence of inflammation. 

To learn more about Autism BrainNet, including how to register as a potential brain tissue donor, please visit and 

About UT Southwestern Medical Center

UT Southwestern, one of the premier academic medical centers in the nation, integrates pioneering biomedical research with exceptional clinical care and education. The institution's faculty includes many distinguished members, including six who have been awarded Nobel Prizes since 1985. Numbering more than 2,700, the faculty is responsible for groundbreaking medical advances and is committed to translating science-driven research quickly to new clinical treatments. UT Southwestern physicians provide medical care in 40 specialties to nearly 91,000 hospitalized patients and oversee more than 2 million outpatient visits a year.

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