Brain Donation and Dementia

What is brain donation? 

Brain donation is different from the donation of other organs in that it refers to the contribution of a person’s brain material to research efforts, not to the transplant of an organ from one person to another. Researchers use brains of persons who are deceased to study diseases and conditions that affect the brain, like dementia. Having a physical brain allows them to examine exactly what was going on in a person’s brain before they died, and to understand the progression of neurological conditions like dementia. They can look at different parts of the brain, compare it to other brains, and use microscopes and other scientific tools to learn a lot more about the person and the brain.  

Besides Alzheimer’s and other dementias, donated brains are also used to research conditions such as Autism spectrum disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, and many others.

Why does brain donation matter for Alzheimer’s and other dementias?  

Scientists are still learning much about Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common cause of dementia. They understand the basic markers of the disease, which are amyloid plaques and tau tangles, but are still learning how and why they show up and progress in a person's brain. Examining the brain of someone who was known to have Alzheimer’s disease allows for the comparison between what was happening inside the person’s brain and what their life and behavior was like before they died, to put it simply. Researchers can also compare brains to one another and learn more about how the disease progresses and why. For this reason, healthy brains are needed for research purposes as well as brains with neurological diseases. All of this information informs our understanding of diagnosing, preventing, treating, and curing diseases like Alzheimer’s.  

How and why to donate a brain 

Brain donation is most helpful when information is known about a person before their death, to give a context for the information found in the person’s brain after it is donated. It is recommended that arrangements for a brain donation are made ahead of time with a research facility or brain bank. There are very strict protocols in place for brain donation and experts should be consulted to learn more information.  

In Michigan, there is a Michigan Brain Bank operated by the University of Michigan that registers and processes brain donations. The Brain Bank contributes material to the studies of many brain diseases including Alzheimer’s disease. More information and contact information to learn about donating a brain to the Brain Bank, can be found on their website

Sources:

Alzheimer’s Association “Brain Donation”

Michigan Brain Bank 

NIH National Institute on Aging “Brain Donation Resources for ADRCs” 

NIH NeuroBioBank 

The Guardian “We need their brains: Donating to the brain bank in search of a dementia cure.”

University of Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center