What is Brains for Dementia Research?
From our spring 2018 issue of Care and Cure magazine, we look at our Brains for Dementia Research programme and find out what the year ahead holds.
Brains for dementia research is a joint initiative of Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK. It receives brain donations and makes excellent quality brain tissue and medical information available to biomedical researchers.
A human brain contains billions of brain cells, connected through incredibly intricate networks. With every sensation, thought and emotion, these cells communicate with each other in many complex ways. Not surprisingly, the diseases that damage this elaborate system can also be complicated, and they are notoriously difficult to study.
The diseases that cause dementia are some of the most challenging for us to understand. They affect multiple regions of the brain and cause symptoms ranging from memory loss to personality changes and language difficulties. To learn more about these diseases, researchers can grow brain cells in a dish or use animals bred to have the symptoms of dementia. However, there are many things that we can only find out by studying the brains of people who actually lived with the condition.
Brain banks receive, examine and store brains from donors. They are an important resource for researchers to study the impact that dementia had on a person’s brain while they were alive. For dementia researchers, the ideal brain bank would provide samples of brain tissue for them to study the many different diseases that cause the condition. However, this is impossible for a single brain bank to do.
Brains for Dementia Research was set up to provide researchers with the brain tissue they need by bringing together a network of excellent brain banks. A collaborative project between Alzheimer’s Society and Alzheimer’s Research UK, it consists of centres in Bristol, Cardiff, London, Manchester, Newcastle and Oxford. Each centre receives donations of brains from people who had dementia, but they also welcome brains donated by people who do not have dementia. Researchers use these to compare changes that have taken place in the brains of people who had dementia.
Since it was founded in 2007, the public response to Brains for Dementia Research has been very positive. Over 3,200 people have signed up to donate their brains to research, with over 700 brains received from people who have died. The value of each brain donated is immense – tissue from a single brain can be used for up to 200 research studies.
Why is this project special?
As well as providing brain tissue for research into a broader range of diseases, Brains for Dementia Research also makes sure the donated tissue is looked after well and that there is better information about each donation.
A big problem faced by other brain banks is that it is difficult to get detailed medical records and genetic information for each brain donated to them. This is frustrating for researchers, as it makes comparing different cases of dementia more difficult.
Dr Helen Costello, the project’s Co-ordinating Senior Manager said:
‘Brains for Dementia Research is now the "gold standard" for brain tissue banking. Monitoring each prospective donor throughout their later life provides researchers with extensive medical information, allowing them to see how brain changes match symptoms.’
After the brain donor has died, their brain is brought to a brain bank as quickly as possible. It is examined by a neuropathologist, a person who specialises in identifying disease and injury in the brain tissue of someone who has died. The neuropathologist examines the whole brain before using a microscope to detect the tiny changes in the delicate architecture of the person’s brain that have been caused by dementia. This is how the neuropathologist can confirm the diagnosis of the type of dementia that the person had – examining the brain after death is still the only way to do this conclusively. As well as being vital information for researchers, an accurate diagnosis can be important to family members and friends, who may be able to better understand the condition that affected the person they lost.
How does brain donation help?
Since Brains for Dementia Research was established, it has supplied researchers with over 80,000 samples of brain tissue. Each sample is typically very small, weighing no more than a postage stamp. The majority of tissue has been used in research-based within the UK. Around 20% of samples have been sent to research groups across the globe.
The extensive list of breakthroughs made using tissue from this project is impressive. They include advances to improve the diagnosis of vascular dementia and the identification of new risk factors for dementia. Researchers discovered a chemical interaction that is unique to Alzheimer’s, and are developing therapies to target this to prevent the disease from progressing. In a large-scale study, researchers uncovered the unique genetic profile of dementia with Lewy bodies that will inform years of future research (see page 9).
How do researchers apply for tissue?
Brains for Dementia Research makes sure that the donated tissue in its care is used ethically in good quality research. Researchers submit a detailed application that is reviewed by an ethics committee so that the brain tissue, information about the donor and the wishes of their family are all respected.
Although this review process is thorough and done with great care, it is also efficient. While other brain banks can take weeks or even months to review applications, the Brains for Dementia Research committee reviews them within one week.
All going well, staff at the project co-ordinate how the researcher receives the brain tissue they need for their work. To study some rarer types of dementia, tissue may come from several different brain banks in the network so that the researchers have enough samples.
What does 2018 hold?
The focus of Brains for Dementia Research has now switched from recruiting brain donors towards promoting the quality and availability of tissue for researchers.
Professor Alan Thomas, Brains for Dementia Research Director says:
‘In 2018 we move to our next exciting stage, during which further important information on participants will be collected, including more detailed measures of frailty and vascular disease. This will enhance the usefulness of the brain tissue to researchers, as well as providing important clues about the relationship of such factors to ageing and dementia.’
Help support Brains for Dementia Research
Running a network of brain banking centres is a worthwhile but very expensive task. We would not be able to run Brains for Dementia Research if it wasn’t for the generosity of our supporters. If you would like to give a gift today to support this essential resource, you can donate online at alzheimers.org.uk/brainbanks or call 0330 333 0804.
Although Brains for Dementia Research is no longer seeking donors other brain banks are still are, find out more online at www.hta.gov.uk
Title image shows human brain cross-section that has been coloured by special dyes which allow researchers to look at brain structures and cells.