CNN has uncovered a collection of nearly 10,000 human brains in a basement in the Southern University of Denmark.
Most of the brains are believed to belong to men and women who died in Danish psychiatric hospitals between 1945 and 1982. The brains, which have been preserved in formaldehyde, are believed to have been taken without consent.
In an hour-long special programme, “World’s Untold Stories: The Brain Collectors”, that aired on November 12 on CNN International, Dr Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, reveals that the brains sit in white plastic buckets on rolling shelves, cared for by Dr Martin Wirenfeldt Nielsen, a pathologist and current director of the collection.
The pathologist, it was discovered, got the job when the university took possession of the collection. There are 9,479 brains in Dr Nielsen’s care, with roughly 5,500 brains with dementia, 1,400 with schizophrenia, 400 with bipolar disorder, 300 with depression and more.
“Back then, [doctors] really had no idea about what these diseases were,” Dr Nielsen said of the psychiatric disorders central to this decades-long brain bank.
He adds: “We still know very little about them, but they knew that those diseases were in the brain. So they said ‘okay, we’ll gather all the expertise that we have to sort of help future patients in the same situation’.”
While conducting the yearlong investigation, Dr Gupta also spoke to Lise Søgaard, a Danish journalist who was tracking her family’s connection to the brain collection. She would have discovered that her great aunt was a patient at Danish psychiatric hospitals, receiving treatment for schizophrenia. For treatment, her great aunt underwent a lobotomy – a type of psychosurgery that was used to treat mental health conditions. When she eventually died in 1951 aged 24, her brain was removed and sent to the brain collection, where it was transferred to bucket #738.
Lobotomy, explained Dr Gupta, is an integral part of Denmark’s psychiatric history as the country reportedly did more lobotomies per capita than any other during the time the brain collection was running. Now considered barbaric, the procedure was developed by a Portuguese doctor, who won the Nobel Prize for the procedure in 1949.
“I don’t think that the doctors wanted to do bad. I think they actually wanted to do good and their actions were horrible,” Ms Søgaard said. “And if we look at them today, you could say, ‘how could you do that?’ But they were a part of a system.”