What happens when you donate your brain to science

by Ruth Nichol / 18 April, 2017

Photo/Getty Images

There’s nothing like getting your hands on some grey matter to understand its intricacies.

It’s all hands on deck when a donation arrives at the human brain bank at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research.

The first thing staff do is remove a small sample of tissue to give to the biobank down the hallway, where it is used to grow live cells for research into a number of brain diseases – including Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s – and to test potential treatments for them. Over the next few hours, staff cut the rest of the donated brain into more than 100 different blocks, which they freeze using a snow-like form of dry ice, label with a special code and store in one of 12 -80°C freezers.

“We keep them at that temperature because it holds the brain in the condition it was when we received it – it stops the DNA and the RNA [ribonucleic acid] from degrading,” says the facility’s deputy director, and Parkinson’s researcher, Maurice Curtis. “It also means we can cut the tissue into thin sections so we can look at it under the microscope.”

About 25 brains are donated to the bank every year, most of them from people who have had some kind of brain disease, although healthy tissue is also welcome for comparisons. And although many countries have human brain banks to provide tissue for research into neurological disorders, the Auckland facility has several unique features.

Maurice Curtis. Photo/Jeff Brass

The first is how quickly after death the donated brains arrive, which makes the tissue highly sought-after by researchers worldwide. The second is the relationship that key staff members have with donors’ families. Curtis is one of a small group of people who know the donors’ identity and medical history, and he stays in close contact with families before and after donations.

“We don’t just say, ‘Give us your brains.’ It’s a long-term relationship.”

Developing and maintaining that relationship take time, although our small population makes it relatively easy to do. But it’s more than just a nice Kiwi touch; it’s also useful from a research point of view. It has made it possible for Curtis to contact families to find out potentially significant information, such as any medication a donor took or whether they were right- or left-handed.

But what really makes the Auckland brain bank remarkable is the relationship it has with the biobank, which is the only facility of its kind in the world. Established with a donation from the Hugh Green Foundation in 2011, the biobank grows live brain cells from donated brain tissue as well as from brain tissue from neurosurgery done at Auckland City Hospital.

The cells are used to test potential new treatments for brain disease, rather than using animal brain cells, as is normally the case. Biobank director Mike Dragunow believes human brain cells provide a much better indication of how effective a new treatment might be.

“It seems logical that if you can test on cells from people who had the disorder, then that is more likely to translate to patients who have it now.”

The two tissue banks work closely together, most recently on a project led by Curtis looking at how Parkinson’s spreads through the brain. Using brain cells grown by the biobank, they found evidence that the pathological proteins that cause Parkinson’s, called Lewy bodies, spread via what are known as tunnelling nanotubes. These are like bent straws that link brain cells.

Curtis and his team believe tunnelling nanotubes provide a way for Lewy bodies to spread undetected by the immune system until they eventually reach the substantia nigra, which is responsible for initiating movement. Once the substantia nigra is affected, people start experiencing the symptoms of Parkinson’s, such as tremors, slowed movement and rigid muscles.

Curtis says the next step is to look at ways of stopping or slowing the spread, possibly by reducing the number of tunnelling nanotubes.

“We are also interested in the whole ‘gating’ idea – what controls the spread, and whether we can change the rapidness with which it is being spread.”

This column was first published in the April 1, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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