Weighing in at around 1.4kg — the human brain is our most precious and mysterious organ. Despite centuries of research we still know surprisingly little about how our brains work or how to fix them when things go wrong in conditions like Parkinson’s.
One of the reasons for this is that during life, the human brain is very difficult for scientists to study. Unlike some other organs, we cannot simply take samples to study under the microscope, and brain scanning techniques (although getting better all the time) are limited. In addition, complex brain conditions - like Parkinson’s, dementia, depressions and schizophrenia - are pretty unique to humans which makes them difficult to study in animals.
All this means that studying human brain tissue that is donated for research is still one of the most important ways we can study Parkinson’s.
Research made possible through the donation of brain tissue has already led to some of the most crucial advances in our understanding of Parkinson’s, and resulted in new treatments being developed and tested.
Donated tissue is leading to the discoveries which will help us find a cure and improve the lives of the 145,000 people living with Parkinson’s in the UK.
So how does brain donation work?
The Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank, based at Imperial College London, collects precious tissue from people with and without Parkinson’s who have decided to leave their brains to Parkinson’s research.
The tissue is supplied to researchers studying Parkinson’s all over the world, enabling research that is helping us uncover the discoveries that will lead to better treatments and a cure.
But how does our brain tissue go from our bodies to a researcher’s laboratory bench? Here we guide you through the process of brain donation, describing events both before and after donation.
1. Become a donor
To become a donor, you first need to register.
This means completing a donor consent form and health information sheet, as well as agreement from your next of kin. It’s vital that those closest to you know of your decision so that they can help ensure your wishes are carried out.
Once the brain bank team have received your completed forms they will send you a donor card.
2. When a donor dies
When a registered donor dies the brain bank team should be contacted as quickly as possible.
The brain bank team will work with the donor’s next of kin, medical professionals, funeral directors and mortuaries to organise the tissues to be removed at a local hospital with mortuary facilities.
The brain and spinal cord are removed in a respectful and careful manner that does not affect the appearance of the body.
The Brain Bank aim to collect tissue within 24 hours but they can accept tissue up to 48 hours after death.
Most of the important contents of brain cells — including DNA, proteins and lipids — deteriorate slowly after a person dies and can be preserved in a good condition for up to 48 hours. However some others, like mRNA and neurotransmitters, deteriorate more quickly, which is why the team aim to collect tissue within 24 hours when more of these are preserved for study.
A member of the brain bank team will travel to the hospital to collect the precious tissue and take it back to the Brain Bank making sure they keep it cold and in the best possible condition.
If the tissue is travelling over a long distance, it may be kept in a chemical preservative called formalin to allow more time for transport.
Dissecting the brain and spinal cord may take up to 2 hours.
Before the brain can be dissected, it is first carefully examined. This means photographing and weighing the brain, as well as noting any obvious changes to the surface of the tissue.
The brain is first cut in half. Half is kept in formalin and used for the diagnosis of the tissue (see next step). The remaining half is cut into very thin slices and frozen to provide samples for research.
The only way to be 100% sure whether someone had Parkinson’s is by looking closely at the brain after death.
Every brain donated to the Parkinson’s UK brain bank is examined for signs of Parkinson’s by looking at sections of the brain under the microscope and using staining.
The results of the diagnostic examination are shared with the donor’s family by letter and with any researchers who use the tissue.
One brain provides around 250 samples which means it can be used in a large number of different research projects.
Researchers from around the world apply for tissue from the brain bank. Each application is reviewed by scientific experts and people affected by Parkinson’s to ensure that the research is both a good and ethical use of tissue.
Tissue from the brain bank is supporting projects across the world that are helping us understand the condition better and drive us towards better treatments.
Find out more about the Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank and how to register at www.parkinsons.org.uk/brainbank
Or contact the brain bank directly by:
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Phone: 020 7594 9732