Donating Your Brain to Research

19 Dec 2013

CHeBA Blog: Donating Your Brain to Research


There are currently approximately 320,000 people in Australia with dementia, with that number set to rise to almost one million by 2050, and 115 million globally. These predictions mean that not only do we need a clear plan to make care available for so many people with dementia, but we also need to pursue prevention strategies vigorously.

Prevention of dementia depends largely upon research, and beyond the necessities of funding, equipment, and academics with the right skill base to perform the research we need one extra thing: brains.

"Even before the time of Alois Alzheimer, it has been recognised that we cannot understand dementia, and therefore develop strategies to prevent it, without studying brains that do or do not carry the hallmarks of disease," said Scientia Professor Perminder Sachdev, Co-Director of the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA).

CHeBA conducts three longitudinal studies: the Older Australian Twins Study, the Sydney Centenarian Study and the Memory & Ageing Study. Although a significant component of these studies involves neuropsychological assessments, brain scans and blood samples, another fundamental component is the study of pathology in the brains under the microscope and cell-related work. It is this element of CHeBA's research that requires the donation of brains.

In December 2012, Cecily Chittick signed the documentation on behalf of her mother, Mrs Doris Greason, who was a retired reputable Eastern Suburbs teacher, to have her brain donated to research.

image - Donating your brain to researchNot only was Mrs Greason an enthusiastic participant in the Memory & Ageing Study at CHeBA, she also cared for her husband with dementia in his final years. She experienced firsthand the devastation of no longer being recognised by a loved one and wanted research to find an answer. She also witnessed the burden dementia placed upon families and took the socially conscious view that donation of her healthy brain tissue would benefit her great grandchildren when they aged.

“By donating her brain to research, we are able to look under the microscope and draw conclusions that we couldn’t do while she was alive. We are also able to study changes in proteins and genes associated with disease. The benefits of that are extremely far-reaching,” said Professor Sachdev.

The mantra of CHeBA is “Healthy Brains. Positive Ageing.” Positive ageing implies achieving a full life span and enjoying good quality of life unaffected by loss of cognitive ability. According to Cecily, her mother aged well because of her attitude to life and the ageing process. She kept herself busy, was optimistic, curious and had that rare quality of never dwelling on the past. Importantly, Mrs Greason also kept herself cognitively active by teaching herself German over 30 years and continued to be physically active by playing golf every week for over 60 years until she was 85 years of age. Both of these things, particularly in combination, are crucial for brain health, and at 87, just before her passing, Mrs Greason was a fantastic representative of positive ageing with zero memory deterioration.

Mrs Greason’s biggest fear was being a burden on her daughters and the day before she passed asked for her licence. “Don’t forget I have put on my licence that I want my brain donated to medical science - I know they won’t want my body but they’ll definitely want my brain!” Ironically, Cecily and her sister had forgotten where they had stored her licence. Mrs Greason however, had forgotten nothing.

Like Mrs Greason, Mr Stuart Barton Babbage remained immensely cognitively and physically active during his lifespan. Born on the 4th of January 1916, Mr Babbage personally led a long and healthy life.

He generously gave his time to CHeBA’s research as a participant of the Sydney Centenarian Study, and was committed to making any contribution that he was able, so as to make it possible for others to attain longevity. Having a strong Christian faith, he had no fears of his brain being examined after his death. In fact, this would maintain a family tradition - his great-great grandfather's brain has been preserved in the Science Museum in London. At Mr Babbage’s passing at the age of 96, this eminent churchman and notable humanitarian donated his brain to research.

Mr Stuart BabbageHis son, Tim Babbage, recalls that “he loved a good book but his greatest joy was to be able to host a successful dinner party. He would carefully choose a group of guests who would find common interests, and try to introduce new people that others would find stimulating and perhaps build ongoing friendships.”

Mr Babbage remained a strong advocate of social engagement his entire life which, according to research, has a number of benefits in relation to brain health. He subscribed to several theatre groups and accompanied friends to the performances, again, choosing people who he deemed would enjoy the particular occasion. He tended to have an optimistic view of life, was an avid gardener and also tried to take a walk each day, as advised by his doctor.

“The message is that while ageing is inevitable, losing our mental capacity is not,” Sachdev said. “Like Mr Babbage, many of the centenarians in our study are remarkably physically fit and cognitively sound, living independent lives and engaged with society.”

Mr Babbage certainly ascribed to all the facets of positive ageing which included keeping his mind challenged that allowed him a long, interesting and engaged life. “He continued to read widely and extensively, although he was gradually moving to reading a lot of biographies, rather than more intellectually challenging theological works he had in his library. He was determined to keep his mind challenged,” said Tim.

“A common misconception from the older community is that their brain wouldn’t be useful to research. Every single donated brain brings us one step closer to understanding age-related brain disorders,” says Scientia Professor Henry Brodaty, Co-Director of CHeBA. 

“We are extremely grateful to the people that donate their brains to research like Doris Greason and Stuart Babbage. The generosity of these donors assists the researchers at CHeBA to improve diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and other dementias during life, and also to advance our methods of early detection,” he said.


If you want to find out more about brain donation, you will find information for CHeBA study participants on our Brain Donation page. Anyone else interested in brain donation can request it directly from the Sydney Brain Bank on (02) 9399 1107.