Donating your brain to science helps unlock keys to Alzheimer’s

Most people don’t think about having their brain donated to medical research when they die.

But medical researchers, pathologists and doctors studying brain tissues say obtaining brains from an autopsy helps them learn more about Alzheimer’s disease, memory disorders, addictive behaviors and other neurological conditions.

In fact, both the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach store autopsied brains in their respective brain banks.

At UM, brain tissue is studied at the Brain Endowment Bank and sent to researchers worldwide. Mount Sinai administers the Florida Brain Bank, a statewide network of hospitals and research sites, and sends brain tissues to a pathologist at the Mayo Clinic Jacksonville.

“In the past 20 years we have learned more about the human brain than we have in human history,” said Deborah Mash, professor of neurology at UM and director of the UM Brain Endowment Bank.

A 1985 Florida law created the Alzheimer’s Disease Initiative, which led to the Florida Brain Bank. Administered by Dr. Ranjan Duara, medical director at Mount Sinai’s Wien Center for Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders, the program is also facilitated through the Wien Center and the Alzheimer’s Resource Center in Orlando.

The Brain Endowment Bank at UM opened in 1986 and since then has received 2,066 donated brains. Another 500 people have pledged to donate their brain after death, Mash said.

“Our brain donors and their families are really visionaries because without their understanding and support none of this goes forward,” she added.

While doctors can diagnose Alzheimer’s in a living patient with about 90 percent certainty through cognitive exams and brain imaging, a definitive diagnosis can be made only through an autopsy.

“The families want to know what the exact diagnosis was because it tells them about their own risk for the disease,” said Mount Sinai’s Duara. “It often helps families get closure.”

Once a brain is donated to a brain bank, it is sliced in half and researchers look for evidence of tumors, strokes or too many fluids, Duara said.

Immuno-staining tests are done on tissues in brain banks, a process where a dye is cast onto the brain so specific proteins are highlighted. Protein tangles and a large number of plaques in the brain are indicative of Alzheimer’s.

Mash, the UM director, has also done a study on the effects of drug abuse on the brain. The National Institute of Health-funded study on cocaine looked at how drug abuse damages the brain and disrupts specific pathways.

“Is the drug damaging the structural anatomy of the brain? Yes, it is,” Mash said.

Researchers and pathologists at brain banks also look at brain tissues donated by healthy people who died from either natural causes or from a non-neurological-related cause. This serves as a control group for comparison with those who have Alzheimer’s.

“They (controlled brain tissues) are teaching us why some people age razor sharp and why some have Alzheimer’s,” Mash said.

While the UM brain bank has many tissues donated from people who had memory disorders, said Mash, the researchers need more controlled tissues as well as more brains from people who have autism.

“We need to have those brains come into the hands of researchers to understand autism,” said Mash. “Brain banks are changing the way doctors treat patients.”