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Last Updated: Monday, 12 May, 2003, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Brain 'theft' laws promised
Image of head and brain
About 24,000 brains were kept for research

The brains of thousands of mentally ill and depressed people may have been illegally removed after their deaths for research, a government inquiry has found.

The government has promised new laws to prevent similar cases in future.

The report, written by Dr Jeremy Metters, the HM Inspector of Anatomy, concluded that between 1970 and 1999, tens of thousands of brains were retained after post mortems.

It is not clear how many were taken without the necessary consent, but Dr Metters said that these legal requirements were "consistently disregarded".

The report says that many doctors did not realise they were breaking the existing law by not seeking the consent of relatives beforehand, he said.

Covert research on retained brains is offensive to many relatives
Dr Jeremy Metters, report author

He condemned the practice, which was uncovered when a relative found a letter saying that her husband's brain had been taken.

Dr Metters wrote: "Covert research on retained brains is offensive to many relatives, particularly those of faith groups, who ask why they had no opportunity to voice their objections."

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

Among 34 recommendations in the report is a call that the practice of taking organs without consent should be made a criminal offence.

"The most certain way to ensure there is no recurrence of unlawful organ and tissue retention is through a change to strengthen the law," it says.

England's Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Liam Donaldson, said that new legislation was on the way.

He said: "Removing organs or tissues at post mortem examination without lawful authority is an affront to families who have lost a loved one.

"We will change the law to ensure that consent is put at the centre of any actions that are taken to conduct post mortems and retain organs or tissues for research."

Law change

However, mental health charity Sane said it was essential the findings did not hamper future research into mental illness.

Its chief executive, Marjorie Wallace, said: "Medical research into the brains of people suffering from mental illness has come almost to a halt already.

"Without it we will never understand, we will never find these cures.

"The only way forward is to do post mortem research."

She said an outcry over the report could send research back to "pre-microscope" days, and called for the establishment of a national brain bank to hold all tissue samples, and a simplification of the rules surrounding the donating of brains for research.

Medical research into the brains of people suffering from mental illness has come almost to a halt already
Marjorie Wallace, Sane

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, from Greater Manchester, whose case led to the inquiry, committed suicide in 1987 after suffering from depression.

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.

His wife, Elaine, 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.

She said on Monday: "We're talking about a person's basic human right - you don't lose that just because you're dead."

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.

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

Dr Evan Harris MP, the Liberal Democrat health spokesman said: "This underlines the need for an updating and overhaul of the laws on coroners services, and organ retention, which I have been calling for since well before the 1999 scandals at Alder Hey and Bristol."

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, from the British Medical Association, said: "Medicine has moved on and we are confident that practices have changed.

"Doctors recognise that individuals have the right to make decisions for themselves."

Rethink chief executive Cliff Prior said: "It is no longer acceptable - and never has been - for people to be treated with such a total lack of respect and dignity. Consent must be the starting point for treatment at every point."

  • The Retained Organ Commission is operating a helpline for families who are affected by the report's finding.

    The freephone telephone number: 0800 838 909, will operate for 24 hours a day for the first 3 days following the publication of the report, and thereafter during the day for the next fortnight.

    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"

    Q&A: Brain 'theft' inquiry
    12 May 03  |  Health
    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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