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Mystery of missing Texas brains appears solved (no zombies involved)

A gaggle of brains have gone missing from a psychology lab in Austin, Texas, over the years. But the University of Texas offers up an explanation: the brains were properly disposed of.

About 100 human brains were missing from the Animal Resources Center at the University of Texas in Austin. Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons, London

You just can't make this up, guys. About 100 brains had gone missing from a basement at the University of Texas in Austin over the years. And on Wednesday, after wide reports of the missing brains circulated, the school offered an explanation.

"A preliminary university investigation has revealed that UT environmental health and safety officials disposed of multiple brain specimens in approximately 2002 in accordance with protocols concerning biological waste," the school said in a statement. "This was done in coordination with faculty members who determined that the specimens had been in poor condition when the university received them in the 1980s and were not suitable for research or teaching."

The missing organs were part of a collection of approximately 200 brains that the university received on loan from Austin State Hospital in 1986, and they were stored in the university's Animal Resource Center. The brains in the collection were encased in jars of formaldehyde and used by the department of psychology to teach students about the human brain and medical disorders related to it. Most of the brains in the collection were kept in the basement because there wasn't enough room to store them all in the lab.

Approximately 100 brains had likely gone missing from the basement storage area over the course of many years, university staff members believe. But differing opinions emerged on where they might have gone, and whether they were deliberately moved. Before Wednesday's revelation from the university, Jerry Fineg, former director of the Animal Resources Center at the University of Texas where the brains were stored, said he thought the brains were sent back to Austin State Hospital sometime in the mid-1990s, according to The Atlantic.

Fineg told The Atlantic he asked current co-curator Tim Schallert to move half of the collection elsewhere since they were taking up too much shelf space in the center, and said that Schallert sent them back to the hospital. But Schallert said he never sent them, and told the The Austin-American Statesman that "we think somebody may have taken the brains, but we don't know at all for sure."

Schallert's fellow professor and co-curator Lawrence Cormack was even more convinced, however, and thought the brains may have been removed over time as part of a prank. "It's entirely possible word got around among undergraduates and people started swiping them for living rooms or Halloween pranks," Cormack told the Statesman.

One of the missing brains was believed to be that of Charles Whitman, a former Marine who in 1966 took an elevator to the top of the University of Texas Tower armed with a sniper rifle and killed 16 people and wounded 32 others. Whitman left a note for police officers requesting an autopsy to investigate and confirm his suspected mental illness. The pathologist found a 5-centimeter-long tumor in Whitman's brain, though no causal link between the tumor and Whitman's suspected mental illness was found.

In its statement, UT said it has yet to confirm reports that one of the brains belonged to Whitman. "We have no evidence at this time that any of the brain specimens came from Charles Whitman, though we will continue to investigate those reports," the school said.

The University of Texas may or may not have closed the door on the mystery Wednesday. At least we're now pretty sure zombies weren't to blame, since if zombies were behind the cerebral disappearance, all 200 or so brains in the collection would have been reported missing. Zombies aren't too keen on leaving brains behind.

Update: 12:52 p.m. PT: The story has been updated to include a statement from the University of Texas saying the brains have been destroyed.

(Via USA Today)