A Mindful Gift

Brain donations could help in the fight against neurodegenerative diseases

 Thinkstock

Thinkstock

After you die, your brain could go on to help future generations live longer and healthier lives.

By studying donated human brains, researchers at the University of Calgary Brain Bank, part of the Hotchkiss Brain Institute, are making strides in understanding neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis and ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

A brain autopsy, dissection and microscopy procedure allows pathologists to see the changes wrought by dementia and how much a brain has deteriorated due to disease. Where there was uncertainty of diagnosis in life, examining the brain can give clarity and correlate what parts of the brain are damaged with the person’s clinical symptoms. 

“Anybody who wants to do research on neurodegenerative disease needs to eventually bring it back to [studying] humans,” says Dr. Jeffrey T. Joseph, neuropathologist at the brain bank, who has dissected or sampled all of the nearly 90 brains stored at the facility.

Brains processed by Joseph are separated into two halves; samples are removed from one half and are frozen and stored, while the other half is kept in a fluid that preserves the tissue and makes it firmer.

The brain bank needs all types of brains—those that have aged normally are used for comparison with neurodegenerative brains—but in Alberta it can be tricky to donate. Next-of-kin must sign off on brain donation since it involves an autopsy.

“You [alone] can’t register to donate your brain,” says Joseph. “It’s important for people to be willing to donate tissue from their loved ones who have died or are near death.”

Have the conversation about brain donation early, Joseph says, as it will ultimately be your family members’ decision. It must be done as soon as possible after death—within two days for normal brains and four days for neurodegenerative cases—and requires family members to request and consent in writing to a brain autopsy and donation.  [ ]


Contact the Cognitive Neuroscience Clinic at 403-944-4406 or the University of Calgary Brain Bank, ucbb@ucalgary.ca for more resources on brain donation. More information is also available at alzheimer.ca.