Page last updated at 07:18 GMT, Friday, 5 June 2009 08:18 UK

Looking for clues inside the brain

By Anna-Marie Lever
Health reporter, BBC News


Dr Steve Gentleman's detective work unravels brain disease

To the background hum of freezers Dr Steve Gentleman, a neuropathologist at Imperial College, is performing a dissection.

"It is a detective game, I need to find out what has gone wrong in the brain so I can pass that information onto researchers who are using the tissues," he explains.

The University houses two brain tissue banks, one for multiple sclerosis and the other for Parkinson's disease. They are funded by charity and rely on brain donors.

Dr Gentleman creates a series of diagnostics blocks which are then processed into microscopic sections for structural analysis.

"In a multiple sclerosis brain, what we are looking for is signs of disruption to the normal wiring of the brain, so the white matter becomes discoloured, this is a sign something has gone wrong with the normal insulation of the nerve fibre," he says.

Damage to the spinal cord might indicate motor-neurone disease, while lesions in the limbic system, the memory part of the brain, could suggest Alzheimer's.

Discoveries made using brain tissue include the now well-described role of dopamine in Parkinson's disease, a chemical where depletion results in poor co-ordination, and the presence of amyloid deposits in Alzheimer's disease, which results in the death of brain cells.

Central database

It is now hoped that deeper inroads into brain research can be made due to the announcement of a UK-wide Brain Bank Network. This will coordinate the 12 major brain banks in the UK, from London to Edinburgh.

The network will help speed up research so people in the field can use the results.
Prof James Ironside, UK Brain Bank Network

The network, led by the Medical Research Council (MRC), will make the processing of brains from donor to lab more efficient, giving researchers speedier access to the tissue they need.

All samples will be entered into a central database and scientists across the UK, as well as those overseas, will be able to request certain tissues according to disease, region of the brain and age.

Professor James Ironside, Director of the UK Brain Banks Network says: "The UK is leading the world with this system. Many diseases, like Alzheimer's, are becoming more common as the population ages.

"In order to help clinicians and families we need to know more. The network will help speed up research so people in the field can use the results."


Through sharing, the network also hopes to make use better use of the available control samples, normal brains that can be used as a yardstick against which to measure.

Cross-sections of brain in laboratory
Coordination between brain banks will make best use of available material

Recent research has shown that while many people are prepared to donate other organs, there is reluctance about brain donation.

Imperial College brain bank has approximately one control brain for every diseased brain. Brain banks for other conditions, like autism, may have even fewer controls, as a disease that is predominant in children.

Dr Shaun Griffin, from the Human Tissue Authority (HTA), says: "Anyone giving tissue for research can be confident their donation will be treated with respect and dignity.

"This area is tightly regulated by the HTA, we are an independent watchdog that protects public confidence by making sure that human tissue is used ethically and with proper consent."

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