Douglas research centre turns 25

Douglas research centre turns 25 McGill University

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McGill Reporter
May 27, 2004 - Volume 36 Number 17
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 36: 2003-2004 > May 27, 2004 > Douglas research centre turns 25

Douglas research centre turns 25

"The Douglas Hospital is not only a place, but an idea -- the idea that men and women need not be condemned to live apart because of mental illness." So said Robert Bell Douglas, the former president of the hospital that bears his name.

Caption follows
Brain Bank coordinator Danielle Cécyre
Owen Egan

The hospital's research centre -- the largest mental health centre in Quebec and one of the two such Canadian centres collaborating with the World Health Organization -- celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and will host free activities from mid-May until the end of the year.

The hospital itself has been around much longer, having been founded in 1881, and originally named the "Protestant Hospital for the Insane." From its earliest days, the hospital was reputed to be progressive, and in 1946 it became affiliated with McGill as a teaching hospital. In 1979, the research centre was founded and N.P. Vasavan Nair named as its first director.

The Brain Bank -- one of the centre's most important research tools -- was established the next year under the initiative of Dr. Samarthji Lal, the first of its kind in Canada. Most of the brains in the bank's collection have belonged to someone who suffered a degenerative disease, such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.

The bank has eight freezers for brains, each on their own generator and with extensive backup systems in place. There's always an empty freezer in case the others fail and the technicians have to move the grey matter for safekeeping. When researchers need brain tissue, they submit a request form, along with their research abstract and their board of ethics approval.

While most banks aren't short of deposits, the Brain Bank could use a few more. Danielle Cécyre, coordinator, says, "People think about organ donation, but not brain donation." The organ donor option on the back of your provincial health insurance card only applies to transplantation or grafting purposes, not research, and medical staff don't always ask the kin of a dying person about making a brain donation.

The centre always has someone on call in case of a donation. Ideally, within 24 hours of death, the brain is at the Douglas labs where they're diagnosed and classified by a neuropathologist before being either stabilized in formaldehyde or frozen. The brains are later diagnosed and classified by a neuropathologist.

The centre has received 1,411 brains to date, with 28 brains so far this year, but only one healthy control brain. According to Cécyre, the researchers' "biggest problem is access to healthy brains." The bank is also lacking brains of those with mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or clinical depression. With the increase in research in these areas, demand is rising.

Cécyre used to work in the centre's current scientific director Remi Quirion's lab as a biochemist, and has been with the bank for seven years. Although accustomed to handling the organs, she's been there long enough to sometimes remember meeting the people whose brains she can hold in her hands.

On Saturday, June 5, the public is invited to the research centre, including the Brain Bank, for an open house. Visitors will meet researchers, check out a sleep lab, play a 3-D video game to learn about spatial memory and discover how stress and genetics affect mental health.

Other events include the screening of movies related to mental illness. The Hours will be shown on June 2, with Gustavo Turecki leading a discussion on suicide afterward, and on June 5, Born on the Fourth of July will be screened, followed by a discussion on post-traumatic stress disorder led by Alain Brunet.

For more information and directions, go to

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