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Southwest brain bank aids research in mental health

July 18. 2017 | By Jerry Najera

It’s the most complex organ in our bodies: the brain.

Researchers estimate our brains contain between 86 to 100 billion cells but some brains are more complex than others, especially those who struggle with depression, schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders.

ABC-7 visited El Paso’s first and only brain bank where groundbreaking research is underway.

“I see the effects everyday. It’s my job as a psychiatrist to treat patients with mental illness,” said Dr. Peter Thompson.

For more than 20 years, Thompson has worked with mentally ill patients on a day-to-day basis.

“My heart went out for them because their illness had robbed them of their humanity. They weren’t able to live with their families, it robbed their families of their family members,” Thompson said.

Thompson, a professor at the Department of Psychiatry at the Texas Tech University of Health Sciences El Paso, sees firsthand the feeling of disgrace that comes with mental illness.

“The stigma is horrible. It prevents people from getting treatment, it limits the treatments they can get and it really makes a difficult life much more difficult,” Thompson told ABC-7.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, two out of 10 people in the US suffer from a mental illness.

1 out of 100 will be diagnosed with schizophrenia, about 3 out of 100 people can be diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and the rate of mental illness for soldiers who have been in combat is 5 to 15 percent higher than their counterparts who have not.

Thompson set out to understand the biology of mental disorders and this is where the South West Brain Bank comes in. It’s one of only ten in the country.

“It’s really designed to collect human tissue for the study of mental illness,” Thompson said.

There are close to 500 brains at the research center of TTUHS center of El Paso.

But these aren’t just any brains. These are donated by those afflicted with a mental illness.

In most cases, Thompson says individuals and families are willing to donate the organ.

“It can be with schizophrenia, it can be with severe depression, it can be with alcohol and drug addiction, the families live with these individuals day in and day out and their lives have been turned in so many different directions trying to help these individuals and they know the pain so well that they don’t want others to go through the same thing,” Thompson said.

The brains are preserved in formaldehyde or kept in a freezer at minus 79 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Projects we might study would be for example looking at different protein levels in schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder that might be responsible for some of the symptoms,” Thompson said.

Another doctor studies brains and Parkinson’s disease.

As for Thompson, he hopes his studies will help improve the lives of those suffering from mental disorders in the future.

“One day, the information that I have been acquiring here may help people not have to have the severe mental illness. That they can live a life that they want. That they can be with their family and not be encumbered by their symptoms”

In the near future the brain bank will also provide brain samples that can help in the study of alcoholism.

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