Brain Donation: Giving Your Brain to Neurological Research

We have a shortage of brains in this country. And that includes dead people.

Medical schools and research institutes are in constant need of brain tissue for studies on neurological disorders like autism, dementia, and narcolepsy, so they make the process of brain donation free and easy to coordinate. If you or a loved one are thinking about releasing your brain to science upon death, now is the time to learn about brain donation programs and make appropriate plans. Because it does not typically interfere with standard funeral arrangements, brain donation provides an alternative to full body donation. Whereas total body donors cannot have a traditional viewing or burial, brain donors can still have an open-casket viewing and a normal interment.

Many people are surprised to learn that the autopsy procedure to remove brain tissue is minimally invasive to the dead body. Although some people would prefer not to think about the more gruesome details, it’s important to understand how the procedure is done. An incision is made in the back of the dead person’s head, and the necessary brain matter is extracted without deformation. The hole from which the brain is extracted is sealed up, and then the body can be prepared as normal by a funeral director, sans grey matter.

Depending on the brain donation program, the procedure may be conducted at the funeral home or it may require brief transport of the deceased person to the research institution before the funeral home. In most cases, the brain tissue extraction only adds a few hours to the funeral preparation process – no major delay. When the donor dies, the next-of-kin simply needs to contact the brain donation institution right away (usually via a 24/7 phone number) to set the donor’s plans into action. Although brain donation programs never charge for the procedure itself or the related transportation costs, they cannot assist with standard funeral costs. [Look into full body donation if you’re interested in defraying those expenses.]

Brains from people with without brain diseases are needed, so you can have a totally healthy brain and still give it to research. So-called “normal” or “control” brains are needed just as much as brains of people afflicted with neurological disorders. As you can imagine, it’s the ability to compare healthy, well-functioning brains with diseased brains that allows neurological research to progress. Not all brains are welcomed to science, however. Check with an individual brain donation program in advance to see whether the donor qualifies. People with certain diseases or people who’ve received certain unusual medical treatments before death may not be allowed to donate.

Different receiving institutions conduct different types of neurological research with the brain tissue they receive. Often, when a donor completes the necessary paperwork, they are advised on the ways in which their specimen is likely to be used. For example, there is a Stanford University program dedicated to narcolepsy research and a Boston University program dedicated to Alzheimer’s research. However, some medical schools collect brain donations for multiple research initiatives. Prospective brain donors may want to contact the nearest medical school or research institute to learn about nearby programs. Or just search the web.

If you are interested in brain donation, look into your options and discuss them with your family and friends. It’s an easy way to make a contribution to society without giving up the idea of a conventional viewing and burial. Although it sounds flippant, this is the literal way to give ’em a piece of your mind.

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