Life after death: Donating your body for research

It can help doctors improve the quality of life for millions. So why don't more of us do it? Anna-May Nagle reports on the cadaver conundrum

It's not just high street banks that are running dry. Britain's brain banks are perilously low on supplies, according to a report last month from UK research scientists. More donors are urgently needed if the causes of, and new treatments for, neurological diseases including dementia, autism and Alzheimer's are to be found.

Healthy brains are needed, not just those with disorders, to discover cures for brain-related diseases. Dr Payam Rezaie of the Neuropathology Research Laboratory at the Open University describes the current situation as "dire" and says that thousands more brains are needed to support research.

Tomas Revesz, Professor of Neuropathology at University College, London, says: "The brain is so complex that there is no ideal simulated alternative for essential research into neuro-degenerative diseases. And, unlike other organs, the brain cannot be fully investigated when a patient is alive without the potential for fatal damage."

For most of us, giving blood is as altruistic as we get in medical terms, but donating your brain or even your entire body to medicine is much appreciated by the UK medical community.

I know this because my two daughters, Molly and Martha, are second-year undergraduates at medical school. They have both said that they have learnt a great deal more from their dead "patients" than the live ones. They regularly practise their anatomy skills on cadavers (dead human bodies) and – with no sense of irony – say that these sessions bring their subject "to life". They joke that being a cadaver is the only sure way of getting into medical school as the application system becomes more demanding.

Martha describes her first experience in the anatomy laboratory, which took place in the second week of her first year, and the gratitude she felt. "Anticipation of the smells worried me most," she says. "It turned out to be no worse than the chemistry labs in school. You forget about yourself very quickly once you are in there. I was awestruck that the person lying there had donated themselves so I could learn."

Molly recalls her first anatomy class, also in the early weeks of training: "Several of us excused ourselves because we felt faint or nauseous. The teacher was very understanding and thought we were reacting to the atmosphere in the lab and the sight of our first cadaver. Truth was that the previous night had been the close of rag week. We'd had one helluva party and most of us had almighty hangovers."

Rag week antics give rise to one of the biggest myths about abuse of cadavers. Tales abound that bodies are made up, dressed up and toted round to pubs, clubs and parties. Professor Anthony Firth, head of anatomy at Imperial College, London, rubbishes these suggestions. ''I've never come across a student treating a cadaver with anything but respect. We would expel any student who used a body inappropriately, and they'd also be liable to prosecution." Martha agrees that no medical student would ever attempt to move a body for non-legitimate reasons: "It would be a shocking breach of trust. Besides, anatomy areas are very secure and under constant supervision."

My husband claims he wants a Viking longboat funeral. The arrangements would be left to me should I survive him, and as we live in the shadow of Wembley Stadium, fulfilling his final request would be a challenge too far. Inspired by my daughters' accounts of the value of body donors to their training, I thought I might "surprise" their dad by ditching the longboat idea and donating his body to medical research. But no can do. Only mature donors able to make informed decisions about their own bodies would be considered. Under the rules of the Human Tissue Act 2004, donors must offer themselves by completing a detailed form, which requires both their signature and that of at least one other responsible witness.

The first point of contact for anyone interested in body donation is the Human Tissue Authority, which refers potential donors to regional centres who handle permission forms and receive bodies after death. Arrangements for potential brain donors differ, and the nearest brain bank should be first point of enquiry.

Generally, only bodies that are outside the normal range for weight or height would be rejected. Sufferers of notifiable diseases, such as CJD, viral hepatitis or HIV, make unsuitable donors because they pose a health risk to morticians, anatomists and students.

Currently, about 600 people each year in the UK choose to donate. Bodies are never sent overseas. Most cadavers are used in teaching hospitals, but some will be also be welcomed by biomedical research organisations or institutions for anthropological investigation and, very rarely, by licensed art colleges.

Donors must be aged at least 17, although in practice they are rarely under 25 and most are much older. Equal numbers of men and women donate, but certain cultures and faiths do not permit donation, including Orthodox Jews. A representative from the Jewish Joint Burial Society explains: "Orthodox Jews believe their body is sacred and therefore must be buried intact in the form it was created."

Body donations are always a gift. Professor Firth of Imperial College states firmly that "any payment would be illegal", although medical schools will arrange and meet the eventual cost of cremations, which are always individual and carried out with dignity. Perhaps the credit crunch might result in a rise in donations in order to save on funeral costs.

Body donation is voluntary. Ghoulish tales abound of grave-robbing and the use of prisoners and unclaimed bodies for medical experimentation. Professor Firth says: "Historically, yes, these things happened. However, bodies of executed criminals have not been used in the UK for a couple of centuries and unclaimed bodies ceased to be used after the First World War."

Louise Evans is anatomy donations co-ordinator for the London and South East Committee of Anatomists. She organises an annual ecumenical service of thanksgiving for donors, where family and friends of the deceased meet students and anatomists. She says: "It's a very moving service that reflects the deep appreciation of the medical community for the gift they have received from these individuals." My daughter Martha adds: "We treat our cadavers with total respect. It borders on reverence. I would urge people to consider donating. Their generosity will save lives."



Human Tissue Authority: 020-7211 3400; www.hta.gov.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £60,000

    £25000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

    Recruitment Genius: Care Workers Required - The London Borough of Bromley

    £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This homecare agency is based in Beckenh...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

    £25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives - OTE £50,000

    £25000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about Custom...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum