The University of Texas at Austin is missing about 100 brains, about one half of the entire collection from the University… and no one seems to know what happened to the brains.

Texas University reported 100 missing brains. Image via Business Week.

University staff are scratching their heads trying to figure out what happened to the brains; it may be an act of vandalism or theft, or perhaps even more disturbing, it may simply be a case of misplacing the brains.

“We think somebody may have taken the brains but we don’t know at all for sure,” psychology Professor Tim Schallert, co-curator of the collection, told the Austin American-Statesman.

It’s not out of the question that this in fact a prank blown way out of proportions. You never know with Texas undergrands. His co-curator, psychology Professor Lawrence Cormack, said:

“It’s entirely possible word got around among undergraduates and people started swiping them for living rooms or Halloween pranks.”

The University said in a statement that it will investigate “the circumstances surrounding this collection since it came here nearly 30 years ago” and that it was “committed to treating the brain specimens with respect”. It says the remaining brain specimens on campus are used “as a teaching tool and carefully curated by faculty”.

Aside for being very disturbing, this disappearance also poses a real problem: in an academic context, brains are used for study and they can yield very valuable information not only for students, but also for leading edge research. Among the missing brains is that of clock tower sniper Charles Whitman. Whitman was an American engineering student and former U.S. Marine, who killed 16 people and wounded 32 others in a spree shooting in Austin, Texas on the University of Texas at Austin campus in and around the Tower on the afternoon of August 1, 1966.

Even compared to other shootings, the case of Whitman is particularly bizarre; his suicide letter wrote:

“I do not quite understand what it is that compels me to type this letter. Perhaps it is to leave some vague reason for the actions I have recently performed. I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.”

Whitman seemed to suffer from a very serious mental disorder. Although he had been prescribed drugs, and was in possession of Dexedrine (which a friend stated he consumed “like popcorn”), he was still deranged. Scientists were hoping that through modern techniques (fMRI for example) they could find potential abnormalities in his brain. Hopefully, they will find/recover the collection and resume clinical studies.

 

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