Mon, Nov 19, 2018 - Page 7 News List

‘We need their brains’: donating in search of a cure for dementia

Scientists studying the tissue bequeathed to the Sydney Brain Bank hope it will lead them to an eventual cure for neurodegenerative diseases

By Bianca Nogrady  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

It is a rainy Wednesday morning and Andrew Affleck is driving more carefully than usual on his way to the Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) building in Randwick, a suburb in Sydney, Australia.

It is not just the slick, crowded roads putting the edge on his caution; in the boot of his car, cocooned in several layers of protective container and nestled in ice, is the brain of a human being who was alive only a few hours earlier.

It is no ordinary brain — if any brain could be said to be ordinary — but one that has a deadly secret buried inside it. The individual who was until recently embodied within this mass of pink, gray and white tissue died of one of the neurodegenerative diseases that are increasingly a cause of death for the aging population.

Perhaps it was Alzheimer’s disease that gradually robbed them of their connection to reality, or frontotemporal dementia that transformed their personality, or Parkinson’s disease that shook their body and mind. Whatever claimed their life, this organ is on its way to the Sydney Brain Bank, housed within NeuRA.

“I really hope that this is the brain that will get us across the line,” said Affleck, a research associate at the Sydney Brain Bank.

The hope is that scientists will be able to glean some new and vital insight from the brain tissue. Maybe, one day, that insight will lead to a better understanding, a better treatment or even a cure.

“Every donation, bringing the tissue back into the laboratory, I say to myself, I really hope that this is the tipping point,” Affleck said. “That is really exciting, and gets you wanting to do the best you can; not only for science, but for the family themselves.”

The inside of the Sydney Brain Bank looks like a typical research facility: carpeted offices walled with glass and laboratories where every available space is filled with equipment, glassware and folders, but everything is scrupulously clean and tidy.

There are no brains in jars or any Hollywood-esque embellishments that might give a visitor any sense of the 600 or so brains — and some spinal cords — that have passed through the hands of the scientists there.

Several floors below the gleaming laboratories, in a basement that is normally accessed via a goods lift, is a room about the size of a typical boardroom. It is filled with mobile shelves that can be separated and moved with the touch of a button.

The shelves are lined with sealed white plastic buckets, each containing one half of a brain that has been preserved in formalin.

Sydney Brain Bank director Claire Shepherd is almost apologetic about it.

“The buckets don’t look very glamorous or scientific, but years of experience have told us that they’re the best vehicle to store the brains in,” she said.

The temperature-controlled room is comfortably warm and totally silent, apart from a few electronic beeps as the powered shelves are moved apart. It is a peaceful space; like being in a room full of deep sleepers.

The other halves of each of these preserved brains are stored upstairs in ultra-low freezers at minus-80°C.

The Sydney Brain Bank is one of many such facilities around Australia and around the world that collect brain and spinal cord tissue from people afflicted with a variety of diseases and conditions.

That tissue is made available to researchers searching for answers to the questions of why these diseases happen, how they progress and what can be done to treat, halt or prevent them.

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