Brain Atlas Project

Brain Atlas Project

History of Our Idea

Through the 1980s, psychologists had been blaming parents for their child’s autism: claiming that certain parents did not nurture or love their children enough, causing them to develop the lifelong disorder. Can you imagine?

But in 1984, Drs. Margaret Bauman and Thomas Kemper changed all of that. Through comparative anatomy, they identified changes to the cells in the brain’s limbic system and a reduced number of cells in the brain’s cerebellum of individuals with autism. This meant big changes in the autism community.

In doing so, Drs. Bauman and Kemper proved that the cause of autism has nothing to do with a parent’s ability to love their baby. Those cellular differences in a brain with autism were biological changes that developed before birth: facts that relieved parents of the guilt and shame previously associated with the disorder.

This discovery put autism “on the map” as a key disorder in need of further research; understanding the pathology of autism required their initial work to continue.

The Autism Research Foundation was founded in response to that need, and its Brain Atlas Project does just that: continues the work of Drs. Bauman and Kemper to map the structural similarities and differences between typical brains and brains with autism.

Project Summary

The Brain Atlas Project is a collaborative effort that helps more than 1 in every 88 children with autism understand what’s happening in their own bodies.

We collect thoughtful and consistent medical records throughout an individual’s lifespan, which we sync with the structural changes we find in their brains after they have donated them to our research upon passing away. Doing so helps us find patterns in behavior, symptoms, and episodes that could tell us about where to send medicine in the body for therapeutic intervention. Ultimately, we could reduce or eliminate some of the most challenging symptoms of autism with this information. That’s pretty powerful science.

So how do we do this?

Individuals with typical brains and brains with autism have chosen to donate their brain tissue to our research when they have passed away. They consider it to be one last meaningful contribution to helping families who experienced their disorder… and it is! When you choose to donate your brain tissue to our autism research, you are leaving a legacy and advancing our understanding of autism spectrum disorders.

We prepare and store this donated brain tissue carefully in brain tissue freezers at the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center. [Ours is separate from the Autism Speaks' reserve and we did not experience the freezer melting in 2012.] Our database stores the medical history of each person who donated, so that we can account for similarities and differences between their health and lifestyles.

Interested in the graduate-level science description?

Email our research staff directly at and we would be happy to set up a conversation!