Donating your brain in the name of science

Brain donation can significantly advance our research about the mind. (Photographer: GreenFlames09).

by Lorena Stancu

Brain research can be heavily based on the investigation of actual human brains, which are donated after death; the organs can offer valuable evidence on the physical properties of the brain, which can then be linked back to different types of conditions. Researchers argue that disorders such as depression or PTS (post-traumatic stress disorder) should be looked at not only from a psychological perspective, but also from a neurological one, as it is hypothesised that brain wiring can actually change when experienced with these disorders.

The Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Centre in Boston is the largest brain bank in the world, gathering specimens from people with various types of disorders. From milder forms of depression to complex cases of Parkinson or Alzheimer, scientists are trying to uncover the causes and possible solutions to contravene and fight these issues. Dr Kerry Ressler, chief scientific officer at the centre in Boston argues that the lack of experimental material may be deterring the research process and the advancement of new solutions, in spite of the greater technological means and the highly developed tools at their disposal: “What we are really lacking are the tissues from those with the disorders we really need to understand”.

Surely, at the bottom of it there is a psychological battle. Our brains, probably as much as our hearts, tend to symbolize the locus of our metaphysical existence, our “self” operating as organs. Fairly enough, our brains are indeed the organ of our entire existence, the centre through which we experience the inner and outer reality, translating our bodies to the world and the world back to our bodies. Given this strong association to the meaning of the brain or the “mind”, which stores our memories, enables our senses, gives birth to our thoughts and feelings alike, it is not surprising that the idea of donating such an intrinsically personal belonging is seen with scepticism.

However, there are people who think the opposite, especially after living experiences which changed their perspective about life; Caroline, a brain donor, tells BBC News that she is willing to donate her brain for research especially because she would like that science to decipher the mysteries behind certain disorders, such as the one that her sister suffers of: “My parents were fine but why did my sister get schizophrenia? We ae not sure where it came from. How are we going to find out if we don’t do the research on the brain, where the problem is”.

Questions like those that Caroline asks remain unsolvable in spite of scientific progress; on the one side, it seems that the human body will never cease to reveal all of its mysteries, but on the other side, the incredible scientific breakthroughs throughout the centuries should encourage us to believe that humans are becoming more and more astute in understanding their own bodies, and maybe leaving our brains to the scrutiny of researchers is the key for the help of future generations.

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