While most people understand that organ donation can be life-saving, what is less understood is the donation of human brains after a person has died. Kidneys, hearts and other organs can give someone a second chance at life but donating a brain? Simply put, many people are put off by the idea. There is an “ick” factor that cannot be denied. Donors worry about funeral arrangements, what their loved ones might think and if donation will stress them further at a difficult time. Since the brain cannot go to a living person, many believe there is no useful purpose to donating brain tissue. The truth is actually quite the opposite. Brain tissue is very much in demand for research purposes and while it’s more involved than just a kidney or liver going to a person who might otherwise die without it, it’s possible that brain donations have made more of an impact on lives than organs going to live recipients.
Historic neuroscience research such as Arvid Carlsson’s Nobel prize-winning research on the loss of dopamine-producing nerve cells and their role in Parkinson's disease, and James Ironside's identification in 1996 of a new strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) that was linked to mad cow disease would never have come about without donated brain tissue. Scientists like Carlsson and Ironside depend on donated brains to conduct valid scientific studies. It’s especially important that enough brain tissue is available from donors who suffered from conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis as well as mental illnesses like depression or schizophrenia. This kind of organ donation is vital to research.
At Boston University’s CTE Center, scientists have made tremendous strides in understanding Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). This brain bank has been at the center of the debate on concussion in the NFL. Dr. Kerry Ressler, who is the chief scientific officer at McLean hospital in nearby Belmont, MA told BBC news recently that there is a desperate need for more brain donations. While McLean is home to the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center and has a collection of over 3,000 brains, the facility receives requests every day from researchers around the globe. Dr. Ressler explained, “We have the tools and the ability to do some great deep-level biology of the human brain now. What we are lacking are the tissues from those with the disorders we need to really understand.”
Professor Sabina Berretta, the scientific director of the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Centre also spoke to the BBC, stating, "If people think that there are no changes in the brain of somebody that suffers from major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder so then there is no reason for them to donate their brain for research because (they think that) there is nothing there to find. This conception is radically wrong from a biological point of view." The video below features Professor Berretta explaining more about how the Harvard Brain Bank works. For more information on brain donation, click here