BELMONT, Mass. -- A freezer malfunctioned at a Harvard-affiliated hospital that oversees the world's largest collection of autistic brain samples, damaging a third of the scientifically precious specimens and casting doubt on whether they can be used in research.

The director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center said the loss was "devastating," particularly in light of the increasing demand for brain samples among scientists searching for the cause of autism and potential treatments.

"Over the last 10 years, the autism tissue program has been working very hard to get the autism community to understand the importance of brain donation," Dr. Francine Benes said. Now many of those samples have been compromised.

The story was first reported by The Boston Globe.

The freezer failed sometime late last month at the center, which is housed at McLean Hospital in this Boston suburb. At least 54 samples earmarked for autism research were harmed. Many of them turned dark with decay.

An initial review indicates that the DNA in the samples is intact and can still be used for genetic research. But it's unclear whether the samples could be used for the full range of neuroscience needs.

Thirty-two of the brains had been cut in half, with one side placed in a formaldehyde solution, the other in the freezer. The samples in the solution remain available for all research projects, the hospital said.

The frozen tissue samples are normally maintained at about minus 80 degrees Celsius, but the temperature had reached about 7 degrees, that of a common refrigerator, when the failure was discovered, Benes said.

That means an important chemical cousin of DNA called RNA was destroyed, she said.

The collection is owned by the advocacy and research organization Autism Speaks.

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