The decision to set up a UK network of brain banks will come as welcome news to researchers working on a wide range of neurological disorders including Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and autism.
The simple fact is that not enough of us are donating our brains to medical research after we die.
As a result, scientists have been hampered by a shortage of human tissue to work on, and earlier this year some of the country’s leading neuropathologists held a press conference highlighting the problem. They warned that vital research could grind to a halt.
Professor James Ironside – the man chosen to head the MRC’s new brain bank network – was at that meeting. Now he’ll co-ordinate the provision of brain tissue, and help tackle the shortage of donations.
Speaking after his appointment this morning he said: “The availability of high quality brain tissue is critical to the success of research into devastating clinical conditions such as motor neurone disease and schizophrenia. My job is to build on the fantastic work that is already being done by the individual brain banks. Co-ordination is essential to give researchers access to what they need, when they need it.”
Part of the problem is that, because it can’t be transplanted, the brain is not included under the existing regulations governing organ donation – a separate consent process must be completed. That’s meant the organ is often overlooked by people who plan to leave their bodies to medical science.
Another problem, highlighted by Professor Margaret Esiri at Oxford University, is that people may be reluctant to donate their brain because they see the organ as the basis of their identity.
It’s a squeamishness she says must be overcome given the appalling social and financial costs associated with conditions like Alzheimer’s and autism.
When I donated my brain to science 230 years ago, I never dreamed it would be used in the laboratory simulation of life that I am now experiencing.