Federal officials say there’s an urgent need for people to donate their brains for research on autism, Down syndrome and other disorders and now they’re taking a more active role in the effort.

The National Institutes of Health is launching a new initiative bringing together five brain banks in a tissue-sharing network.

Known as NeuroBioBank, the effort will offer a single source for researchers seeking brain tissue to study and provide information for those interested in donating their brain after they die, much like more common organ donation.

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“Instead of having to seek out brain tissue needed for a study from scattered repositories, researchers will have one-stop access to the specimens they need,” said Thomas Insel, director of the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health.

Traditionally, the NIH role has been limited to funding studies of the brain, but the new online resource will make the government agency more central in efforts to expedite such research, officials said.

Researchers say they need brain donations from both individuals with the brain disorders they are studying as well as typically-developing people.

“While making a gift of a loved one’s brain to science may seem unsettling to many of us, brain tissue is a precious resource that enables progress in understanding and treating neurologic and psychiatric disorders,” said Story Landis, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Donors are making an important contribution in advancing knowledge about the structure and function of our most complex organ.”

The NeuroBioBank includes five brain banks initially and NIH officials said they are looking to partner with others as well.

The need for brain donations, particularly among autism researchers, became even more apparent last year when a freezer malfunction at a Massachusetts brain bank destroyed one-third of the world’s largest collection of autism brain samples.