Some of you may have met Susanna’s life partner, Duncan who for the past three years has been living with Parkinson’s though, touch wood, hasn’t been too hampered by the condition.
Some of you may have met Susanna’s life partner, Duncan who for the past three years has been living with Parkinson’s though, touch wood, hasn’t been too hampered by the condition. To be honest it has been more the source of various jokes (he works in research and refers to his ‘shaky statistics’), than it has been a cause of any distress. Susanna’s parents were both sadly tormented by Alzheimer’s disease so brain matters are close to their hearts.
The conditions have alerted Susanna and Duncan to the amazing work at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Brain Research. It is one of the leading brain banks in the world though they make it plain that they need donations to the brain bank to further their work. To find out more, Susanna and Duncan approached Associate Professor Maurice Curtis who is Deputy Director of Neurological Foundation Human Brain Bank. He is an enthusiastic champion of their work and he kindly offered a tour around the lab which is dedicated to researching the causes of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
What a fascinating tour! Susanna can be quite squeamish, but there was no cause to worry. There were no bell jars with pulsing brain matter floating in formaldehyde. Forget the theatrics. Instead the laboratory, in which at least 15 people in Dr Curtis’ team dedicate their working hours, is a busy place with powerful microscopes and computers used as the main tools.
Each year some 25 brains come available from people who have already made arrangements to donate, and these include a mixture of healthy specimens and those with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. Dr Curtis said that when a fresh new brain arrives (it must be within 24 hours of the donor dying), there’s a flurry of activity to catalogue the specimen. One half is sliced, with each portion wrapped in aluminium foil and placed in a small white cardboard cakebox, and deep frozen at minus 80 degrees. Talk about frozen assets. The freezer is security-locked and looks similar to those big chest freezers that households used to have in the 1960s.
The other hemisphere of the brain is preserved and used for more immediate analysis. The brain is dissected into 60 identified portions that enable various scientists to explore specific regions of the brain – depending on their own field of investigation. Most demand is for samples from the core areas of the brain: the hypothalamus and its immediate neighbours.
“Do you want to see some brain?” asked Maurice. His two guests nodded assent, and he showed the two a series of microscope slides with slivers of brain tissue sliced thinner than Prosciutto ham. These were cross sections of the vermis of cerebellum which, when stained with marker dye, looked as beautiful as Ginkgo tree leaves.
The team of medical scientists are a dedicated group following an investigative lead unique in the world. The first area of brain deterioration with Parkinson’s, and similar conditions, is in the olfactory bulb – the little channel where the brain is literally exposed to the nasal passage.
Do you want to see some brain?” asked Maurice. His two guests nodded assent, and he showed the two a series of microscope slides with slivers of brain tissue sliced thinner than Prosciutto ham.
A loss of sense of smell is often an early indicator, and then the deterioration spreads inward, in a distinct pattern. What if this spread could be headed-off at the pass? Would that halt Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s? That’s the hope.
Dr Curtis is sanguine about whether he and the team will be first to come up with treatment but is optimistic they may discover a preventative measure. As he points out, more than a dozen drugs, each costing the developers some half a billion dollars in research have been developed as potential cures, only to have failed to perform in testing. “People work for forty years in this field, and their work may prove fruitless. However eventually this work will bear fruit.” Dr Curtis says.
“But we have to try our best. Even a failure tells us something.”
The research unit works to a high ethical code and offers prospective donors a complete chance to see what’s involved. It is highly skilled research and it goes without saying that they are interested not just in having brains donated, but in having financial bequests to help fund the work, something Susanna and Duncan have decided to do. “Some kind of bank” quipped Duncan. “It offers high interest, but you can’t make withdrawals.” In this case we heartily recommend the investment.