What Happens To My Brain?
So you’ve donated your brain. Or maybe you’re curious about doing so. Or perhaps you’re just fascinated by those who do.
Once a person dies, scientists are pressed for time: They have just 48 hours to collect the brain before it starts to deteriorate. When it arrives, they bisect it down the middle – half will be frozen and the other half fixed in formalin for diagnostics.
"Once the tissue has been fixed for four or five weeks, I will come along and do the diagnostic cut up," explained Dr Gentleman. "So what I’m doing is I’m looking to see any evidence of pathological changes while I’m doing the dissection.
"I dissect out those key areas where we know pathology might be found. The technicians will embed the small pieces of tissue in paraffin wax. They will then be able to cut very, very fine sections – 7 microns."
To contribute to as many studies as possible, each brain is divided into around 250 samples, according to the Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank site.
So who gets to prod, poke, and investigate the pieces of your noggin?
The tissue is given to researchers all around the world who are studying Parkinson’s. Due to the mutable nature of research, the brain bank may need to collect samples of other tissue in the future, such as those from the skin or gut.
"If this happens, we will always ask your next-of-kin’s permission before removing any material," says Parkinson’s UK Brain Bank. The removal of the brain and spinal cord is performed in a finely executed manner that "will not affect the appearance of the body."
All that's collected is the brain, spinal cord, and a sample of cerebrospinal fluid – the clear liquid that buffers the brain and spinal cord.
"All this detail is put in a report," added Dr Gentleman, "along with a summary of the clinical history of the patient, which is done by one of the neurologists and that goes with the tissue – anonymized of course – to the researchers, so they know exactly what they are dealing with in terms of the tissue they’ve got."
Incredibly, just one brain donated to science can be used in up to 50 research studies.