Working at the Parkinson's UK Brain Bank

Rachel worked as a lab technician at the Parkinson's UK Brain Bank, the UK's largest brain bank dedicated to Parkinson's. Here she talks about what her role involved and shares some interesting insights into the brain along the way.

What were your highlights of working at the Brain Bank?

One of the best things about working at the Brain Bank was having the privilege of handling a human brain. As much as dealing with those brains is a part of the job, it is hard not to lose sight of the fact you are effectively holding everything someone once was.

Playing a part in the international Parkinson's research community was also fantastic. To know I was contributing to the 'bigger picture' was a really nice feeling.

Can you describe a typical day at the Brain Bank?

I was part of a team of four lab technicians who helped keep the Brain Bank running. Day to day, the majority of my time was spent meeting requests for brain tissue that come in from researchers in the UK and around the world.

For a tissue request to be granted, a researcher has to provide lots of detailed information about their study, including what they think the benefits of their work will be to the field of Parkinson's research. Requests for brain tissue are also very specific. For example, a researcher may ask for tissue from someone in a certain age range who had Parkinson's, but no other condition, such as Alzheimer's. We also get requests for brain tissue from someone who didn't have Parkinson's  you don't need to have Parkinson's to donate your brain.

Once a request for tissue has been approved (this would normally takes about 3 weeks), I would then prepare the tissue. A researcher can request frozen tissue or tissue that has been embedded in wax.

My job also included lots of other tasks to keep the Brain Bank running. This might mean recording brains that came into the lab or cleaning storage containers. The Brain Bank contains around 1,000 brains, split up into more than 100,000 individual samples, so there was always something to keep me busy. 

How do newly donated brains get to the Brain Bank?

The bank is on call 24 hours a day and brains have to be collected within 48 hours  the sooner the better though, so tissue does not begin to deteriorate.

If a person who has organised to donate their brain after they die is not expected to live much longer, the family can contact the Brain Bank's 24-hour emergency number. This allows staff at the bank to start making the arrangements, so that the brain donation happens more smoothly when the time comes. Otherwise a person's next of kin will call the Brain Bank once their loved one has died.

Once a death certificate has been issued, I would start getting ready what I needed to collect the brain. This included a metal case to put the brain in, an ice block to keep it cool and a non-descript bag to carry everything in. When I got to the town where the donor had died, I would go straight to the local hospital and carefully pack what a specialist has collected. 

You can't tell just by looking at a brain whether it has come from a man or a woman, or how old the person was when they died.

What happens once a brain arrives at the Brain Bank?

Once the brain is in the lab, we start the process of storing the tissue in the dissection room. This process is led by a neuropathologist, a specialist who studies neurological conditions. One half of the brain is preserved to prevent it deteriorating. The other half is dissected and cut into blocks, which are immediately frozen.

It doesn't matter how long it takes to collect a brain and return it to the lab, we have to dissect and preserve the brain the same day. Because of this, days could be very long sometimes especially if I'd travelled a few hours to collect the brain and go back to the lab again. 

After a brain has been examined by the neuropathologist, the donor's family receives a report on what was found - for example, that someone definitely did have Parkinson's. 

Do all brains look the same?

Generally, yes. They can differ slightly in size, but you can't tell just by looking at a brain whether it has come from a man or a woman, or how old the person was when they died. 

What does a brain feel like to touch?

The closest way to describe the feeling of a 'fresh' brain is that it's like jelly. It has to be handled with care - too much pressure and you can destroy the structure, yet it can still be sliced and moved.

After a brain has been frozen, the brain sections are hard, fairly brittle, and can melt if left out of storage. Once it has been preserved, the brain is still flexible but it is firmer than when it is fresh.

Does brain tissue ever get thrown away?

There is no use-by-date on the brains that are donated  all tissue that gets donated will get used over time.

If we do get tissue that can't be used for Parkinson's research, for example on rare occasions we may pick up a brain containing tumours, it can still be used at a different specialist brain bank.

How do I become a donor?

If you're interested in donating your brain to Parkinson's research, please discuss it with your next-of-kin and those close to you. 

Find out more about donating your brain to Parkinson's research