dead brain

Hooray for Halloween!
Bats 'n bugs
Befriending bats
Best brain bank
Grave robbers
Gorgeous graves

Why Files writer
David Tenenbaum
confronts the brain.


a guy with 2 brains

Steven Vincent (background)
admires a brain
(foreground) at the
world's largest
brain bank.


red brain



yellow brain


green brain


blue brain
Bats, brains, & burying grounds

No deposit, no return
author with two brains POSTED 14 OCT 1999 After giving the subject some hard thought, we moseyed on down to the bank looking for a loan. A couple dozen extra neurons, after all, couldn't hurt anybody, and we imagined that we could pay by the month for the brain loan. Call it a real brainstorm.

The bank in question was the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass. Unlike most banks, their stock in trade was real, dead brains -- the kind that once resided in skulls that looked much like ours.

Only a numbskull would have thought we could borrow a brain from the bank, but if they didn't do lending, maybe we could make a withdrawal...

Ominously, we discovered that the bank was actually looking for deposits -- what they call "donations." And to show how serious they were, they encouraged us to heft a fresh brain for ourselves.

We racked our brains to figure out why the bank wanted our thinking machines, and learned that if you're interested in the cause of Alzheimer's disease (this is not something most people wonder about) you need some brain tissue to study. Nice, fresh brain tissue, or at least stuff that's been properly stored. Alzheimer's, after all, destroys the memory of millions of older people by making some weird kind of plaque. To understand what causes the plaque, you need samples of it.

Meet the collection agents
And that's where the Harvard bank enters the picture. As the world's largest brain warehouse (with about 4,000 brains), the bank collects, on average, one new brain each day. Most come from patients with Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other, more obscure neurological diseases.

These serious or fatal disorders all leave their tracks in the brain. Parkinson's, for example, destroys a small region that makes dopamine, a chemical that's essential for communication between neurons. The disease causes a steady loss of mobility and muscle tone, and eventually death; more than one million Americans suffer from it.

As with any bank, this one depends on deposits. But unlike most, it offers little in the way of freebies. In fact, if you do choose to donate, you will have to pay to have your brain removed -- which means you'll pretty much want to be dead first.

The Why Files was interested in making a donation, until assistant director Steven Vincent told us they were most interested in "normal" brains, which immediately removed us from the list...

At any rate, Vincent wants to receive brains within 24 hours of death, so the patient's family must decide the tricky question of making a donation right quickly. Glad we don't have to do the talking: "Oh, by the way, could we have your father's -- er, well, that grayish-white thing in his skull, the one with the weird folds and creases?"

Brain donations are accompanied by a detailed health report, and, to improve knowledge of genetic causes, with as much information on the health of relatives as can be gathered.

When the brains first arrive, some parts are immediately removed and shipped to some of the 100 researchers who accept tissue samples from the bank. All parts of the brain are not created equal, and Vincent notes certain regions are in high demand, including the substantia nigra, the "black stuff" that croaks in Parkinson's, and the frontal lobe, implicated in schizophrenia.

To make his point, Vincent handed us a faintly rubbery, pale yellow slice of brain, riven by the characteristic deep crevasses. Deep beneath the corpus callosum, the wiring network that connects the brain's two hemispheres, were a couple of faint black stripes. If they die, you've got Parkinson's -- and major trouble.

stored donations We put that slice down as quickly as seemed decent -- it would not be cool to act squeamish in a place like this. Then Vincent encouraged us to pick up a complete brain. As we gingerly did so, Vincent explained that remaining portions of the brain are flash-frozen in liquid nitrogen or preserved in formaldehyde and stored in Tupperware.

Brains are identified by number, not name. Vincent guarantees that nobody can go poking around the bank to analyze your donated brain.

All joking aside
As we said, we arrived at the bank looking to make a withdrawal, or at least take out a loan. But we left convinced that making a deposit might be a smarter idea. Brain disorders like schizophrenia and Alzheimer's are among the most common and most serious diseases around, says Bruce Cohen, a psychiatrist who's president of McLean Hospital, which hosts the bank.

"We try as hard as we can to get people to understand that psychological disorders are really brain disorders," says Cohen, noting that it's no more logical to fear a schizophrenic than a patient with heart disease.

Indeed, as Cohen, on behalf of his patients, made a pitch for more funding for psychiatric disease research, we realized that the brain bank is one place where rank amateurs can contribute to the fight against mental illness. Even if you don't have one of the gruesome brain diseases under study, normal brains are needed to show what's, well, normal. This type of comparison has already helped reveal the cause of Parkinson's disease. It's also helped pin down the genetic basis for Huntington's disease, which causes a jerky motion as neurons die, and then kills the patient.

In other words, by making a donation, you, or your heirs, could help heal some of the worst diseases around. Think about that!

Grave robbers want gold, not brains.

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