Scientists want your brain to help find cure for Alzheimer's
MEDICAL breakthroughs and new treatments could be made more quickly if there was an increase in the number of people donating their brain for research, experts said yesterday.
Scotland is already leading the way, with a number of "brain banks" in Edinburgh providing material for scientists around the world to use in research. It is hoped more people will agree to be donors after their death to help speed up that work.
Without more donated brain tissue, studies into neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and rarer conditions could be held up.
Scientists told The Scotsman there was also a growing need for "normal" brains to allow scientists to compare them with those affected by disease.
Across the UK, there are some 10,000 brains being used in research, but only about 10 per cent are from healthy donors.
The Sudden Death Brain and Tissue Bank at Edinburgh University was set up four years ago to collect brain tissue from non-diseased tissue.
It works with the CJD and HIV brain banks, funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and set up in 1990 to focus on tissue from donors affected by illness.
Dr Colin Smith, a neuropathologist at the brain bank, said there was a great need for control tissue to compare with diseased samples for research. "If you are researching Alzheimer's disease, you really need non- affected brains to compare with diseased brains. There is a huge problem nationally and worldwide in accessing this kind of tissue," he said.
Researchers at the bank have set up a link with the procurator fiscal, which means that if someone suffers a sudden death outside of hospital, the family can be approached sensitively for permission to keep material examined during the autopsy process. Samples of the brain are taken, rather than the whole organ.
Since the bank was set up, 178 families have been approached and 96 per cent have given permission for samples to be taken.
There is also an opportunity for people to state their wish to donate tissue before their death. "Ideally, we would have more people doing that," Dr Smith said. "We can help them with the paperwork and inform them of everything they need to know before making a decision."
The bank annually processes about 100 brains and other tissue from procurator fiscal referrals, but only two or three from other donors.
Dr Smith said: "This kind of material will help in research into serious diseases. Even if the researchers are not able immediately to find a cure, they could find ways of modifying these diseases so they are not quite so devastating."
James Ironside, a professor of clinical neuropathology, admitted there was a problem due to the lack of a centralised system for people to contact to discuss donating their brain.
"You raise expectations and you are asking people to be altruistic and to support research in this way.
I think a lot more could be done to make it easier and more transparent," he said.
The MRC is looking at creating a centralised system for people to donate brains and other tissue to make sure it goes to the facility best able to use it.
John Hallett, who chairs the Scottish medical students committee of the British Medical Association, agreed more donations were vital.
"If we can't study brains and other tissue, we cannot further our understanding of disease and develop new treatments," he said.
RESEARCHERS are looking for people with all kinds of neurological diseases to donate their brain to science.
More resources are available for common diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and MS. But researchers also need more material to study rarer conditions such as progressive supra nuclear palsy and Huntington's disease. Professor James Ironside, from Edinburgh University, said: "Our understanding of these rarer diseases is not as far forward as it is with diseases like Alzheimer's."
Researchers also need brains not affected by disease. More information is available at www.edinburghbrainbanks.ed.ac.uk.
'Make it easier for donors'
WHEN Douglas Mure was diagnosed with Alzheimer's more than six years ago, he immediately decided he wanted to donate his brain for research after his death.
However, it took his wife, Betteane, a year to find a research institute willing to take it. "We went to Alzheimer Scotland and they put me in touch with some universities. I went to Edinburgh, Newcastle and Cambridge. None of them wanted it, and in the end we got Aberdeen to agree to take it," she said.
The 80-year-old is to investigate donating her brain as well after learning of the need for tissue from those not diagnosed with a medical condition. But the couple, from Edinburgh, believe it should be easier for people to state their wishes and donate their brain to help medical research.
Mrs Mure, who has been married to her husband, who is 82, for 53 years, said that until new treatments were found, it was important people knew it was possible to live a good life with Alzheimer's.
"My husband socialises, he can go down the shop and buy the paper, you can give him a shopping list and he can go to the supermarket," she said.
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