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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 May, 2003, 14:00 GMT 15:00 UK
Doctors 'stole brains for research'
Image of head and brain
About 24,000 brains were kept for research

The brains of thousands of mentally ill and depressed people were illegally removed for research, a government inquiry is expected to reveal.

The report, to be published on Monday, is thought to say that between 1970 and 1999 brains were often given to researchers following a patient's death, without the consent of the families.

The inquiry was ordered by Health Secretary Alan Milburn when it became clear the practice of removing and retaining brains had become widespread.

The issue came to national attention when Elaine Isaacs discovered a letter revealing that her husband Cyril's brain had been given to an academic for research, without her permission.

Law change

Mental health charity Sane said it was essential the findings do not hamper future research into mental illness.

Its chief executive, Marjorie Wallace, said: "There is a danger that over reaction to this enquiry could mean a step backwards into the dark in our understanding of and ability to treat mental illness."

The report, by the Inspector of Anatomy, Jeremy Metters, is expected to reveal that 24,000 brains from mentally ill people are still stored in British hospitals and universities.

We are not against research but this is something to be given, not taken, by people
Mind - mental health charity

That accounts for half the total kept over the years 1970 to 1999.

It is not clear how many were taken without permission.

Currently, doctors are not allowed to remove organs without the consent of relatives.

According to the Times newspaper, ministers are planning to tighten the laws in order to punish doctors that break the rules.

Accident

The practice is believed to have subsided in the last few years after the outcry from the Alder Hey Hospital scandal, which revealed the organs of 3,500 children were removed without parental knowledge.

Cyril Isaacs, the man whose case led to the inquiry, committed suicide in 1987 after suffering from depression.

Brain
Mental health charity Sane says brains are needed for research

His brain was removed, but deemed not to be useful for research and kept on a shelf until it was incinerated in 1993.

Mrs Isaacs only found out what had happened by accident, during an unrelated General Medical Council investigation into his GP.

As strict Jews, Mr and Mrs Isaacs would never have agreed to any part of his body being removed.

Mental health campaigners said the report must lead to greater openness about the retention of organs and an end to any being kept without the families' approval.

Alison Cobb of mental health charity Mind said she looked forward to seeing "some kind of openness" in the report.

She said: "We are not against research but this is something to be given, not taken, by people.

'Dignity'

"It is something that should not have happened. It is about dignity for people and their relatives after death as well as during life."

Marjorie Wallace, of the Prince of Wales International Centre for Sane Research, said more research involving brains was needed.

"We do not yet know the causes, let alone cures for crippling conditions such as schizophrenia and depression.

"The progress we have made in treatment to date is mainly due to discoveries from post-mortem studies comparing the brains of those who have and have not suffered serious symptoms."

Mrs Wallace added: "Provided the donation of a brain is treated with full respect, there could be no greater gift for future generations."

  • A helpline for anyone seeking advice or support has been set up by the National Committee relating to Organ Retention on 01271 377485.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Karen Allen
"This is bound to evoke memories of the Alder Hey scandal"


Chief executive of Mind, Richard Brook
"It is very disturbing"



SEE ALSO:
Inquiry into brain 'stripping'
30 Jul 01  |  Health
Organ scandal compensation offered
06 Nov 02  |  England
Fresh fears over organ retention
13 May 02  |  England


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