This Is What Happens To Your Brain When You Donate It To Science

One brain donated to science can be used in up to 50 research studies. Darragh Mason Field/Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank

The human brain is a strange, enigmatic entity – a 1.3 kilogram (3-pound) witness to the world, it pilots us from the safety of our skull. It is a powerful product of evolution and a force to reckon with, but it is also incredibly fragile and prone to error. 

In steps the neuropathologist – the man behind the scalpel that slices and dices the brain in order to learn why it fails in some and not in others. 

"Ideally, we need to get the brain back here in under 48 hours because the tissue starts to lose its quality after that time," said Steve Gentleman, professor of neuropathology at Imperial College London and scientific director for the Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank, in a video sent to IFLScience. 

"If it arrives within 48 hours, we will bisect the brain down the middle, half of it will be frozen and the other half is fixed and used for diagnostics."

The brain is arguably the center of the self, the “machine” that drives our personality and who we are, and so you may ask: Why would anyone donate their brain to science? Well, to answer that question, we asked someone who has actually donated her brain. 

Parkinson's UK Brain Bank collect more than 120 brains per year. Darragh Mason Field/Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank

Meg Kierek-Bell, whose brain will go to Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank in London when she dies, has explored and answered this question for herself. A retired nurse who began cadet nurse training when she was 17, she now lives with her husband of 40 years, a poodle, and a Bengal cat. 

It may, at first, seem odd for someone like her to donate her brain to science, but Kierek-Bell has both a personal and practical way of looking at things. It began when she noticed something unsettling about her husband.

"I noticed that my husband had a tremor in his right hand, and it was really irritating. I said to Robin: 'you know, that is a tremor. You’ll have to go the doctor.'"

After a few gaffe diagnoses by doctors, they finally received the one that fit: At 52 years old, her husband Robin was officially diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a neurodegenerative brain disorder, with symptoms that typically include tremors, shaking, and difficulty with balance. It is linked to the decreased production of dopamine in the substantia nigra – a region of the midbrain that influences movement and reward. Although the disease is not fatal, quality of life is reduced, with as many as 10 million people worldwide living with the condition.

Darragh Mason Field/Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank
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