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European scientists hoping Denmark collection of human brains could be key to new treatments

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MIAMI - Doctors say tens of millions of Americans suffer from chronic brain diseases and disorders, but scientists in Europe hope the world's biggest brain bank filled with minds of the past will help patients of the future.

It's a one-of-a-kind cranium collection in Denmark with buckets of knowledge that seemed like a no-brainer. 

"I think it's the largest collection in the world actually; almost ten thousand brains were collected," says historian Jesper Vaczy Kragh.

Started by a prominent Danish psychiatrist, the oldest brain is from 1945, the newest from 1982. 

Decades ago, researchers believed as science progressed, so would their understanding of diseases that affect the mind. 

"When they finished the autopsy, they kept the brain and put it up on the shelf and said, 'okay maybe in 50 years someone will come and know more about the brain than we do now'," says pathologist Martin Wirenfeldt Nielsen, head of the Brain Collection.

The brains come from patients with dementia, schizophrenia, major depression, and other disorders. 

Scientists say the brain bank has already led to some breakthroughs - including finding a rare type of hereditary dementia.

While the collection was created with the hope for a brighter future, its origins are in a dark past. 

Doctors back then treated many patients against their will. 

"There were no people from the outside who were asking questions about what went on in these state institutions," says Vaczy Kragh.

And with little in ways of effective therapy, experts say the untouched brains create a baseline for modern medicine. 

"We can see whether these changes could be associated with the treatment or not as these brains were not treated," says Susana Aznar, a neurobiologist at Bispebjerg Hospital.

The brain collection is held on the campus of the University of Southern Denmark in the city of Odense.

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