In a recent study, Professor Margaret Esiri of the Department of Clinical Neurology set out to try and find changes in a deep part of the human brain that might be associated with autism.
For this she needed brain samples after death from people who had autism, and also from people without. That way she could compare the two groups and look for any differences in the brains in terms of their organisation, changes in cells and their chemistry, or the biological molecules present.
Such differences could shed insight into the causes of autism. However, she was only able to use samples from five people with autism, and only four brains from those without. This wasn’t nearly enough to be able to say if there were any differences. Larger studies would be required to get reliable information.
In the UK, there are only 20 autism brains available for research. That really stops any research like this in its tracks.
‘We need hundreds of brains for research,’ says Professor Esiri. ‘And we also need normal brains for comparison. There is a severe shortage of normal brains for research, particularly from those who died at a young age.’
This situation prompted Professor Esiri and colleagues from other UK universities to appeal for more people to register their desire to donate their brains after death to help research into all kinds of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease multiple sclerosis, and motor neurone disease.
They held a press briefing in London and the response to all the coverage has been very positive. ‘The science correspondents present at the briefing even came up to us afterwards and asked how they could register,’ says Professor Esiri. ‘Following an article in The Oxford Times, the Lord Mayor of Oxford has also kindly offered to donate her brain after her death.’
I don’t know if all that means you’d be in good company or not, but if you would be interested in donating your own brain for research after your death, Professor Margaret Esiri says you can email her in the first instance at firstname.lastname@example.org
How did things get so bad? Well, there’s no system in the UK for donating normal brains for research. The transplant register is for just that – transplants. And giving your body to medical education helps train would-be doctors, but is not for research.
While other organs can be sampled during life for biopsies and diagnostic tests, that obviously can’t be done for the brain. So there is no general method for obtaining brain samples, as well as a lack of awareness of the problem among doctors and nurses and the general public.
Efforts are being made to redress the problem. The Medical Research Council (MRC) is in the process of setting up a national brain bank network. And in Oxford, the Brain Bank for Autism & Related Developmental Research has recently been established thanks to the work of the charity Autism Speaks UK. This new initiative will form part of the Thomas Willis Oxford Brain Collection, an existing brain bank with samples largely for dementia research.
By providing a rich resource for research in this way, it may be possible to make real strides in understanding the basis for behavioural changes seen in people as dementia progresses and which is such a burden for families to cope with.
Or it might be possible to link up changes seen in brain scans of people with multiple sclerosis while they are alive with biochemical or neurological changes in brain samples after death. Tissue samples will also be important to understand the effect new drugs might have on the pathology of disease.
So medical science needs you. Or at least, it’d be very happy with your brain.