Research drives demand for donated tissue at Auckland brain bank

By Martin Johnston

Auckland University motor neurone disease researcher Dr Emma Scotter studies cells grown from donated brains. Photo / Doug Sherring
Auckland University motor neurone disease researcher Dr Emma Scotter studies cells grown from donated brains. Photo / Doug Sherring

Some parts of the brain are much in vogue, others, not so.

"With Alzheimer's, everyone wants to look at hippocampus. We run out of hippocampus tissue very quickly. Other parts of the brain, no one is interested in so far. The occipito temporal doesn't get much interest," says Marika Eszes, the manager of the Neurological Foundation Douglas Human Brain Bank.

But no one can predict what parts of the brain will be needed in the future, so they are all stored with great care and respect.

The brain bank is the collection of donated brains at Auckland University, a remarkable asset for researchers seeking ways to treat devastating neurological disorders such as Huntington's disease, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, stroke and motor neurone disease.

It's an incredibly valuable resource for researchers
Marika Eszes

Some 20 to 30 brains are donated each year, and around 650 in total since the bank began with research into Huntington's disease in 1994.

New Zealand's sole human brain bank has one of the most extensive collections of human brain tissue in the Southern Hemisphere with tissue from nine different neurological diseases and tissue from over 70 normal brains

To be useful for research, a brain must get to the bank within 24 hours of the donor's death. When a brain arrives in a chillybin from a hospital mortuary, it is cut into about 125 blocks that range in size from a thumbnail to about 2cm across. Some blocks are preserved in fixatives, some are wrapped without treatment in tinfoil and plastic before going into a freezer until needed. Labels link the specimens to their donors and the records of their health. Small amounts of the brain tissue are taken to the associated Biobank where cell lines are grown in culture media for other kinds of research.

The brain bank maintains a close relationship with the families of donors.

"We know the history of every brain we research, thanks to our close relationships with the families," says Professor Richard Faull, the director of the university's Centre for Brain Research. "That's only possible in a small country like New Zealand and it means our tissue is in demand all over the world."

Eszes says the bank is always in need of more brains because the tissue gets used up in research.

"It's an incredibly valuable resource for researchers."

"People can register to donate their brain or their families can on their behalf. We do not solicit or advertise. We're not allowed to do that and we wouldn't want to."

"Usually people find out about it either because they have someone in their family who may have a neurological disease or through community associations ..."

Dr Emma Scotter studies cell lines from donated brains looking for clues on motor neurone disease (MND) and how to treat it.

MND is an incurable movement disorder that is typically fatal within three years. About 300 New Zealanders are alive with the disease at any one time.

Scotter is studying pericyte cells from the blood/brain barrier which are damaged in MND and may explain how blood-borne irritants can leak into the brain. Separately she has found a way in which cells dispose of the tangled clumps of proteins that form in MND.

In the search for treatments and insights, her research group is testing new chemical compounds for their effects on promoting disposal of waste proteins. They are also testing compounds for their effects on pericyte cells.

The Brain Bank
• Brain tissue is stored at Auckland University for research
• Around 650 people have donated their brains
• Potential donors can register their interest with the brain bank

• The Motor Neurone Disease Association is holding fundraising walks in 14 centres on Sunday. See mnda.org.nz for details.

- NZ Herald

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