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Medical science needs your brain

Tom Feilden | 10:01 UK time, Wednesday, 7 January 2009

A human brain"We need the best brains working on the best brains." That's the way Professor Paul Francis from King's College London sums up the problem facing scientists working on a range of diseases including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Autism.

The simple fact, he says, is that not enough people are donating their brains to medical science after they die - and if that doesn't change vital research into the neurological processes that cause these diseases could grind to a halt.

Academics like professor Francis say they need some 300 people a year to donate their brains to help find cures and treatments for Alzheimer's, but nothing like that number are coming forward.

At the Oxford Brain Bank for Autism researchers have just 20 brains to work on - no where near enough to draw meaningful scientific conclusions from comparisons with healthy tissue.

Ironically the shortage of healthy brains to run comparisons with is even more acute, and scientists are urging people who don't suffer from any sort of neurological condition to consider leaving their brains to medical science.

Part of the problem, according to Professor Margaret Esiri at the University of Oxford, may be that people are reluctant to donate their brains because they see the organ as the basis of their identity. "It used to be other parts of the body that we thought were important but now people realise that their brain is the crucial thing that gives them their mind and their self."

It's this area of neurological research - into consciousness and developing a 'theory of the brain' - that really excites Professor Steven Rose. Speaking on the programme this morning he described neuroscience as the hottest area of research in biology.

"You and I have a hundred billion nerve cells in our brain, with a hundred trillion connections between them. The possible permutations of those connections are more than there are particles in the universe. It's clear that we cannot understand the brain of any of us, or certainly the minds of any of us, without putting neuroscience together in a much broader context than many of us are able to think about."

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  • Comment number 1.

    How do ensure that I donate my brain to medical science? Would an ordinary donor card do the job?

  • Comment number 2.

    Wanting to donate your brain to science is a neurological condition - so the study will never be ballanced.

  • Comment number 3.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 4.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 5.


    The short answer is no.

    The donor card scheme only applies to organs that can be donated - like livers, hearts and lungs. Since no one (Dr Frankenstein excepted) has ever transplanted a brain into a living patient, brains are specifically excluded.

    The best advice I can offer you, and anyone else who wants to donate their brain to medical research, is to contact a brain bank directly.

    There are about 10 in the UK. You can search on the internet to find the one nearest to you.


  • Comment number 6.

    Steve, I really hope that was your attempt at a witty comment and not your real opinion; otherwise it's people with mindsets like yourself that stop us progressing in Neuroscience.

  • Comment number 7.

    I assume that it was Prof Preston speaking on the 'Today' programme this morning. I only caught a snippet of it. While I support his appeal - having spent some time learning the intricacies of the brain in the dissecting room, I can appreciate the importance of a supply of material for research. However,I believe that he should keep his mouth shut regarding political matters; his views on the Israeli cabinet are of no interest to us and irrelevant to the subject of his interview.

  • Comment number 8.

    We certainly didn't need Steven Rose to tell us that there are "vast areas of the brain that scientists know nothing about". Why didn't you invite a neurologist to comment on some of the things scientists do know about the brain?

    Dr Susan Greenfield would be a good choice.

  • Comment number 9.

    I must apologise to Prof Preston as I now realise the Speaker out of line was Prof Steven Rose.

  • Comment number 10.

    This blog's subject conjures up the image of neuroscientists and their students becoming so deranged from a lack of materials to study they end up taking to the street, pestering every passerby for "Brains...brains...brains..."

  • Comment number 11.

    really nice post>>
    thanks a lot>>

  • Comment number 12.

    The piece on this morning's show made me very angry indeed.
    The female scientist talked about the need for brains with which to study autism. After talking about the amount of money autism costs the state she then said that her research was vital to 'reduce the burden of autism on the state and families'. I was so shocked. There was no mention whatsoever of benefitting people who actually are autistic. No other discussion about research would be framed in these terms. Can you imagine someone talking about the benefits of research into, say, motor neurone disease or depression without talking about how it could help those who had the condition?
    If this scientist regards people with autism as somehow sub-human, only important in terms of the 'burden' they place on 'normal' people or how much they cost the taxpayer, then I respectfully suggest that she finds another area to research, one that won't be informed by dislike and prejudice. It is prejudice like this that actually causes a lot of the financial 'burden' on the state, as even highly able autistic adults are shamefully underemployed.
    As it happens, I have a son on the autistic spectrum, who is loving, highly intelligent, full of ideas and in no way a burden to his family.


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