The South West Dementia Brain Bank (SWDBB) is now situated within the Learning & Research building at Southmead Hospital after a successful move from Frenchay Hospital last April. For those of you who haven’t heard of the SWDBB before, we are a research resource of brain tissue kindly donated by people who had Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or another dementing illness, as well as older people without memory problems. The donated tissue we receive is processed and examined by a neuropathologist allowing a diagnosis to be made. Once fully characterised the tissue can be used for dementia research. The SWDBB provides tissue for use by many researchers across the South West and other parts of the UK. International researchers can also apply to use donated tissue as long as their projects meet our good-practice criteria and their research will add to the understanding of dementia. Donated brain tissue can be stored and utilised in hundreds of different research projects over decades so it is a long lasting and precious gift.

The brain is such a complex organ that we don’t yet have adequate alternative models of it to study in the laboratory. Indeed almost all of the major advances in our understanding and treatment of neurological disease have been based in large part on the examination of human brain tissue. The causes of AD and most other dementing illnesses are largely unknown and treatment can only try to reduce symptoms. Comparison of brain tissue from people who have had dementia with that from people who have not, helps us to identify abnormalities that are specific for different dementing illnesses and that contribute to their development. Diagnosis of AD or other forms of dementia cannot usually be confirmed except by examining the brain after death, and accurate diagnosis is critical to progress in research and treatment.

Making the decision to be a brain donor or consenting to brain donation after the death of a loved one is a very personal decision and one best discussed with your family in advance. In fact the majority of brain donations in the future will be from people who register as donors many years in advance of their death allowing cognitive and lifestyle information to be gathered about them and providing greater understanding of the individual. People donate to the SWDBB for many different reasons but whatever their motivation the selflessness of this act has the potential to help us all in the future. As the Brain Bank Manager I speak with the majority of our donors and their families both during the registration process and the time of death, an experience which I find moving and very humbling. It is important to me that we always do our best to meet our donor’s wishes, and the feedback that I most consistently receive from families is that at this difficult time they take some comfort from knowing their loved one is making a difference and helping others. The strength and determination of people to beat dementia should never be underestimated.

BRACE has made significant commitments to funding this invaluable resource since the charity's creation in 1987 and continues today to support the SWDBB for which we are very grateful. 

Photo: Laura Palmer is on the right.