May 21, 2024

Brain harvesting procedures were ethical, says US institute

One of the best-known psychiatrists in the US has been embroiled in an informed consent controversy over harvesting brains from cadavers. Dr E. Fuller Torrey, of the Stanley Medical Research Institute, is fighting claims that a man employed by him in the state of Maine did not obtain consent forms from the families of deceased donors and took whole brains instead of samples of brain tissue.

Dr Torrey’s theory that infections are a possible cause of schizophrenia and his support of forcing some mentally ill patients to have drug treatment have made him a controversial figure amongst his colleagues, although has written several books which have been highly-praised in the media. In the late 80s, a direct-mail marketing magnate provided him with hundreds of millions of dollars to found the Stanley Institute, which Torrey headed until 2003. The Institute now has “the largest and most extensively characterised” collection of brains collected from people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder in the world. It supplies tissue to researchers in many countries.

Although Federal law forbids selling organs, it still allows fees for reasonable costs. The Stanley Institute paid Matthew Cyr, who worked part-time as state funeral home inspector and an after-hours receptionist for the state medical examiner’s office, US$150,000 for 99 brains. He was originally paid a monthly retainer of $1,000, but when he failed to supply enough, Dr Torrey changed to a per-brain commission basis of $2,500. Cyr appears to have been poor at paperwork. In 31 cases, no consent forms exist for the collection of the brains and important information is missing from other forms. One man who is planning to sue the Institute claims that explicit instructions about his wife’s body were not followed. “He was told that just a small tissue sample would be extracted,” said his lawyer. “And taking the entire brain is not a small tissue sample.”

Dr Torrey, who still works for the Institute but is no longer its head, has insisted that the Stanley Institute acted ethically and in good faith at all times and has emphasised how essential his research is for fighting mental illness.