You driver’s license may indicate that you’re an organ donor – a program of great importance for those in need of a cornea, heart, lung or other organs. But did you know you can also donate your brain?
Typically, organ donation benefits those in immediate need of a transplant. Brain donation works differently. Rather than an organ being donated directly to one person in need, brain tissue is used by several researchers, providing a gift of hope to future generations at risk of developing dementias.
“When it comes to studying diseases of the brain, researchers rely on human brain tissue,” says Thomas Beach, MD, PhD, director, Brain and Body Donation Program, Banner Sun Health Research Institute (BSHRI). “It’s the best possible way for them to understand the complexities involved in diseases of the brain. They need human brain tissue – and from a wide range of donors.”
The brain donation program run by Dr. Beach works with future donors – both those who are aging typically and those who’ve been diagnosed with a brain disorder. Once a person has decided to donate their brain, they are generally seen once a year for about six hours of memory and thinking testing. Each participant is required to have a study partner (typically a spouse, child or caregiver) who can confirm how they are – or aren’t -- functioning.
“When someone chooses to donate their brain, they are giving medical science a great gift,” says Dr. Beach. “Because we’ve collected data from our participants while they were alive, we have an amazing opportunity to compare clinical symptoms with the actual brain tissue of that person. In the case of Alzheimer’s, we can literally see the ‘plaques and tangles’ that are the hallmark of this diagnosis. We can also identify the age-related processes and changes that occur in a cognitively healthy brain. This knowledge helps us determine which changes in the brain are specifically related to Alzheimer's disease and/or related dementias and which are normal parts of aging.”
BSHRI is the only program in the world with a response time averaging three hours from death to autopsy, allowing for optimal preservation of tissue biochemistry. From one brain, researchers can obtain hundreds of tissue samples, which may be sent to hundreds of different research centers worldwide. The program began in 1987 and by the end of 2018 will have autopsied nearly 1,900 brains, supporting about 150 research projects each year. BSHRI research already has led to important discoveries, among them the first FDA licensing trials of Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans to look for amyloid and tau– two toxic proteins implicated in the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease.
“Brain donation is certainly a sensitive topic that involves a family commitment,” says Dr. Beach. “But consider this – over the last 30 years, the major drugs registered for Alzheimer’s clinical trials were discovered through human brain tissue research. This ‘gift’ increases the chances that better diagnostic tools and treatment options will be developed for Alzheimer's disease and related dementias.”
It's never too early to start the conversation about brain donation. The BSHRI program is available to residents in the Phoenix Metropolitan area who meet medical eligibility criteria. For information on programs throughout the country, talk to your local Alzheimer’s disease center or visit the National Institute on Aging website.