Doctors need your brain - and growing demand from researchers has led to calls to approve donations despite relatives' opposition


Medical researchers should be allowed to take the brains of deceased patients regardless of the wishes of relatives, a new study has suggested. In a bid to ensure more brains are made available to British researchers in the battle against neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, doctors and coroners should have more power to approve brain donations for research despite protests from family members.

The concern is that declines in the numbers of post-mortem examinations in the UK will result in an “inability to secure brains and brain tissue” for the vital research into such diseases. Medical scientists have particular difficulties obtaining unaffected or “normal” brain tissue, which acts as a necessary control in the disease investigations.

“Without sufficient quantities of both ‘diseased’ and ‘normal’ tissue, there is a real risk that research, which relies on numbers of statistical significance and control data, will be stifled or might lead to incorrect conclusions and improper solutions,” the new paper, published in the Medical Law Review, warns.

The authors, Shawn Harmon and Aisling McMahon from Edinburgh University, say the decline is due to factors such as the organ retention scandals of the 1990s at the Bristol Royal Infirmary and Li verpool’s Alder Hey Children’s Hospital.

Following the scandals, the Human Tissue Act 2004 and Human Tissue Scotland Act 2006  were established to protect the rights of deceased individuals and their families. The acts regulate the handling of human tissue in the UK.

Under current guidelines, brain tissue donations are made when an individual decides to donate and records their wishes formally and their relatives are aware and engaged. In other instances, an individual makes no decision about donation or fails to inform anyone of their wishes, and their relatives are approached after their death.

However, according to the Edinburgh researchers, some relatives object to donating the brain to the point where they can override the deceased’s own reported wishes. The researchers argue that the public good in helping solving brain diseases should mean that in the event that no known donation wishes have been expressed by the deceased before death, doctors and coroners “should consent to donation for research … and be able to trump most objections raised by the family in other situations”.

They argue that the priorities of society are becoming equally if not more prevalent than those of the family of the deceased. The total cost for brain disorders in the UK in 2010 was approximately £109bn. In 2012, the Neurological Alliance warned that the NHS was facing a “neurology time bomb” as the UK’s ageing  population continues to live longer with brain-related diseases.

Dr Harmon said: “We need to recognise that there are several interested parties [with brain donations] and our argument is that the party with the strongest interest is actually the public, and that the way things operate now doesn’t recognise the interest that the public has. It may not be about giving doctors and others the power to veto what families want, but there does need to be a more open conversation about what interest the public has.”

Professor Seth Love, director of the MRC UK Brain Banks Network, said the arguments raised were simply unfeasible and could create a level of distrust between brain banks and the public. “I just don’t think it would work, particularly as the coroners and doctors would be very anxious about upsetting the next of kin. I understand the arguments, but I just don’t see that this would end up being acceptable.”

Grey matters

Under the Human Tissue Act 2004, there must be written consent before donating a brain. This can be provided long before death, by  an individual contacting a local brain bank; just before death, by  being given to a doctor; or after death by the relatives of the deceased person.

The brain needs to be removed within 72 hours of the person’s death as the tissue will begin to deteriorate without a blood supply, making it unusable for research.

Dr Sue Lishman, president elect of the Royal College of Pathologists, explained that these are conducted much like any other procedure. “It’s like the final surgical operation,” Dr Lishman said. “People are treated with the same level of respect as if they were in an operating theatre having surgery.”

The retrieved brain is divided in two; one section is stored in formalin for neuropathological diagnosis, while the other is frozen and stored at minus 80°C in the brain bank. In some cases, some of the spinal cord is also removed. Researchers contact the brain bank in order to receive small samples of the specific type of brain tissue they require.

The UK has 10 brain banks, some of which are linked to research charities. In 2013, more than 700 brains were banked. The tissue they store is available to researchers all over the world.

For more about the MRC UK Brain Banks Network and brain donation, visit

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Lettings and Sales Negotiator - OTE £46,000

£16000 - £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Worker - Reading and Surrounding Areas

£9 - £13 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity to join a s...

Recruitment Genius: Key Sales Account Manager - OTE £35,000

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Have you got a proven track rec...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £40,000

£15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn