Brain tissue is an essential part of the arsenal needed by researchers to find treatments and cures for neurological disorders. The generosity of brain donors helps us all.
1. Top Questions
(a) brain removal by a pathology specialist,
(b) any fee charged by the venue (e.g. funeral home) where the brain is removed,
(c) any fees charged for transport of the body of the donor,
(d) subsequent cremation or burial of the donor.
For some neurological diagnoses, BSN offers grants to families with financial need. For other diagnoses other non-profits offer grants. Learn more about costs. BSN is a non-profit and does not charge a fee to any party. We ask for charitable contributions so that we may continue helping families on a pay-it-forward basis. Often, families request memorial donations in lieu of flowers. Learn how we spend charitable contributions made to BSN.
(a) Their brain bank is led by one of the nation’s top neurologists (Dr. Dennis Dickson), who personally performs many of the diagnoses;
(b) Historically, the Mayo Clinic has very reliably returned post-mortem tissue reports / diagnoses within 3-4 months, among the fastest turn-around times we’ve seen;
(c) Mayo Clinic is a top enabler of neurologic research as evidenced by publications in PubMed;
(d) Mayo does not require that donors have been patients at Mayo;
(e) Mayo has no limit on the number of brains accepted each year, unlike many other, smaller brain banks;
(f) Mayo accepts the broadest possible range of neurological clinical diagnoses (not including Late-Onset Alzheimer’s, Vascular Dementia, or “unspecified dementia”). Learn more about the Mayo Clinic.
2. Brain donation vs. brain autopsy
After a brain autopsy, the brain is destroyed, usually by incineration. It’s only with brain donation that the brain is preserved and utilized for future neurological research.
At least half of the families we’ve assisted have been surprised by the confirmed diagnosis. Depending on which neurodegenerative disorder someone is diagnosed with, the diagnostic accuracy can vary from 22% (“pure” dementia with Lewy bodies) to 86% (Richardson’s Syndrome type of progressive supranuclear palsy). Said another way, 78% of the persons diagnosed by a neurologist to have “pure” dementia with Lewy bodies are incorrectly diagnosed. And these are specialized “neurologists,” not general practitioners, who are doing the diagnosis.
The only way to obtain a confirmed diagnosis is through post-mortem tissue examination. From the donor’s viewpoint, this knowledge can bring peace of mind to children and grandchildren. From the family’s viewpoint, this knowledge can offer closure. While the confirmed diagnosis is of primary importance to many families, other families believe that enabling research is the ideal way to turn a sad situation into a positive. It can offer some positive thoughts during the grieving process. Enabling research into the mysteries of neurological diseases is key to finding the causes of these diseases, treatments for future sufferers of these diseases, and, ultimately, cures for these diseases.
Nearly all families report a wide sense of satisfaction at having finally done something to fight back against neurodegeneration. Some feel proud of their loved one’s generosity to the larger community. Brain donation is a gift to future generations.
- Have received multiple, conflicting diagnoses, making the diagnosis uncertain, have received one diagnosis from a neurologist but the intended donor or family thinks this is an incorrect diagnosis,
- Want to do whatever he/she can to support research for a cure for any neurological disorder,
- Want to honor a family member’s battle with a neurological disorder,
- Want to do something to fight back against a neurodegenerative condition, or
- Want to minimize suffering for future generations from
At the present time, no blood test, CSF test, imaging study, cognitive exam, or any biomarker test can confirm a diagnosis of what pathologies are in the brain. Researchers are getting close on some neurological disorders. In fact, the only way to confirm that a pre-mortem test is accurate is through post-mortem examination of the brain. As a result, brain donation will be needed well into the future to diagnose neurological disorders.
If brain donation is not possible yet the family still wants a confirmed diagnosis, the only option is brain autopsy. For autopsy only, the brain will be destroyed (incinerated) after it is removed and examined. Ask your local funeral home or cremation organization if they can assist you in arranging a “private autopsy.” The range is perhaps as low as $2,500 and as high as $6,000 (New York state and California). Ask which neuropathologist will be receiving the brain tissue and performing the analysis. (In many cases, the analysis is done by a general pathologist, which we believe is not ideal.) Ask how long it will take to obtain a report. Learn if there’s an opportunity to follow up with the neuropathologist and ask questions after receiving the report.
Sometimes major university medical centers will perform a brain autopsy at no or minimal charge to the family as long as the person has a medical record number from that medical center (or has been seen there previously). Again, the local funeral home or cremation organization may know about this. Or contact the autopsy department at the major university medical center. Often autopsies are only done Monday to Friday, 7am to 3pm, and are handled by pathology residents. Generally these are only done at the morgue of the university medical center. This means that the family may have to pay the funeral home or cremation organization for roundtrip transportation to/from the morgue.
3. Eligibility3.1. What diagnoses are brain banks looking for?
Neurological diagnoses of special interest include:
- Alzheimer’s Disease WITH a family history OR young-onset AD (diagnosed before age 59)
- Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
- Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy
- Corticobasal Degeneration/Syndrome
- Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease
- Frontotemporal Dementia or Pick’s Disease
- Huntington’s Disease
- Lewy Body Dementia (also known as Dementia with Lewy Bodies)
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Multiple System Atrophy (also known as Shy Drager Syndrome)
- Neurodevelopmental disorders such as Asperger’s Syndrome
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Posterior Cortical Atrophy
- Primary Progressive Aphasia
- Progressive Supranuclear Palsy
- Restless Legs Syndrome
- Tourette Syndrome
Psychiatric diagnoses (all must be diagnosed by a physician, ideally a psychiatrist) of special interest include:
- Bipolar Disorder
- Major Clinical Depression
Brain banks are also looking for “neurologically-normal” donors. These “normal control” donations are very important for research as they demonstrate what “normal aging” looks like.
In effect, most brain banks seek to collect brain tissue representing diagnoses of all but the most common neurological disorders: Alzheimer’s Disease, Vascular Dementia, and undiagnosed dementia.
A few brain banks around the US will accept brains from those who have not participated in clinical studies or research. It depends on the diagnosis. No matter what, the brain banks will need neurological records in order to utilize the brain for medical research.
Yes and no. Unfortunately it is true that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are no longer funding Alzheimer’s brain donation through national brain banks. Reportedly this is because there have been lots of Alzheimer’s brains donated with poor clinical records such that this tissue is not really useful for research.
If your family member has Alzheimer’s Disease and didn’t participate in research at a medical institution with a brain bank, brain banks are likely only interested in the brain donation if your family member was diagnosed before age 59, or if there’s significant family history (at least two blood relatives), or if there’s another diagnosis that may be of interest (such as epilepsy).
Unfortunately this is also true. We are aware of no “loopholes” for vascular dementia though we were successful once in having a brain bank accept a vascular dementia case where the donor also had a traumatic brain injury and had attempted suicide.
As most unspecified dementia is either Alzheimer’s Disease or vascular dementia, brain banks are no longer interested in brain donations from this category. Often times when we probe, the family remembers other specific diagnoses made along the way, leading to eligibility for brain donation.
This means that a brain bank is less likely to be interested in the brain donation because there aren’t good neurological records available and the brain bank would prefer a diagnosis made by a neurology specialist.
Generally speaking, brain donation is allowed in all states. However, New York makes brain donation difficult because state law requires that the brain be procured at a hospital. No New York hospitals are willing to plan in advance for brain donation. Most New York hospitals are reluctant to cooperate, even on a last-minute basis. If you live in the state of New York, the best option is to have your loved one transported across state lines for the brain procurement. Ask your funeral home or cremation organization if this is a viable option.
4. Overview of brain donation process4.1. What’s required for a successful brain donation?
After 800 brain donations, our experience shows the following are required for a successful brain donation:
- The next-of-kin or holder of healthcare power-of-attorney is willing to give consent, order neurological records for the brain bank, and provide written family info on their loved one’s symptom timeline;
- The funeral home or cremation organization is cooperative and will allow the brain procurement to occur on its premises 7 days a week, either for free or a small fee, or charges a small fee to transport the deceased to a medical facility;
- A pathology specialist (or pathologist) is available 7 days a week. If a single specialist isn’t available on all 7 days, we require an alternate so that all days of the week are covered;
- The hospice agency (if applicable) is cooperative;
- The care facility (if applicable) is cooperative; and
- Donation arrangements are made in advance.
Each brain donation arranged by Brain Support Network is individually organized and documented. In general, our instructions are broken into two parts.
The first part of the instructions includes:
- The paperwork (e.g. the consent form, payment for the pathology specialist, and some forms that the brain bank requires) which must be completed by the family in advance of the brain donation;
- The consent form is specific to each case;
- A list of advance preparations (e.g. preparing bags of ice and providing alerts to key parties to indicate that death is imminent);
- A list of steps that must be taken at the time of death (e.g. by the family, hospice, care facility, and the funeral home or cremation organization);
- Details of the brain donation work to be performed by the pathology specialist (e.g. brain procurement protocol and instructions for shipping the brain to the brain bank).
With the family’s permission, the first part of the instructions are sent to the family, funeral home or cremation organization, and pathology specialist. If a hospice agency and care facility are involved, we also encourage the family to allow BSN to share the instructions with those entities. We also obtain the family’s permission to share key details with the brain bank.
The second part of the instructions includes:
- Guidance on ordering neurological records that must be sent to the brain bank, ideally before brain tissue is received;
- Guidance on providing written family information (e.g. the timeline of symptoms, family medical history) that must be sent to the brain bank, ideally before brain tissue is received;
- Information on how the family may follow up with the brain bank about the neuropathology report.
The second part of the instructions are sent to the family only as it’s the family’s responsibility to order neurological records and provide written information.
Both sets of instructions are unique to each brain donation.
Please complete the “Soon” or “Immediate” form, depending on the urgency of the situation. The “Soon” form can be completed if end of life is up to 6 months away. The “Immediate” form should be completed if end of life is hours or days away, or has already occurred.
These forms will ask that you share with us the following info:
- The name of the healthcare agent or next-of-kin who will give consent for the brain donation and his/her contact information;
- The specific diagnosis, who made the diagnosis (name, affiliation, specialty such as neurology or psychiatry), when the diagnosis was made (month/year), and when symptoms began (month/year);
- The name and phone number of the funeral home or cremation organization you plan to use;
- Whether your family member is on hospice;
- Whether hospice has indicated death is imminent (hours/days away); and
- Whether you believe that death is imminent (hours/days away).
Brain Support Network evaluates this information. If we think that the brain donation may be accepted by a brain bank, we will call the funeral home or cremation organization and learn if they are cooperative with brain donation. We also learn the funeral home’s requirements and fees, if any. When we place this initial call, we are simply gathering information and do not need to share your family’s name with the funeral home.
Then we attempt to locate a pathology specialist who can do the brain donation work. The specialist may be the least expensive, the closest geographically to the funeral home, or the one
Once we have tentative cost information, we share that with the family. The family can then decide if we should proceed to make detailed arrangements.
Ideally, we ask that you contact us several months before death and certainly before death is imminent (hours or days away). Whenever you do contact us, we will do our best to help.
Certainly contact us when your family member:
- Has been placed on hospice or when hospice indicates that your family member is “actively dying”,
- Has stopped eating AND drinking for more than 48 hours,
- Was recently hospitalized,
- Is currently in the ICU of a hospital, or
- Has contracted aspiration pneumonia.
Yes. We don’t encourage people with neurological conditions to make detailed arrangements years in advance of death. This is because, every six months or so, it is necessary to re-confirm the arrangements with the funeral home and pathology service. Prices go up, requirements may change, companies may get purchased, and people may move from the area. We aren’t staffed to re-confirm and revise detailed brain donation arrangements every six months.
In general, we recommend waiting until your loved one is placed on hospice to begin making detailed arrangements for brain donation. Between now and then, Brain Support Network can certainly look into how brain donation might work in your particular case such that when you or a loved one is placed on hospice, we already have some knowledge of your situation.
We work on death-is-imminent (hours or days away) cases first. If we are able, our staff drops everything to focus on those cases. (Note that our staff does not work 24×7.)
The next priority are cases where the intended donor is on hospice and hospice indicates the person is “actively dying.” In these cases, death may be several days or a couple of weeks away. Perhaps the intended donor has not taken in any fluids in a 48-hour period but is still conscious.
The next priority are cases where the intended donor is on hospice but death is not imminent. These are the ideal cases as there’s a “manageable” level of stress.
The next group of cases we work on are where the intended donor is on palliative care. For these cases, we prefer to do the legwork to understand how brain donation might work but we suggest waiting until the person is on hospice before we make detailed arrangements.
Then we work on all other cases. For these cases, we prefer to do the legwork to understand how brain donation might work but we suggest waiting until the person is on hospice before we make detailed arrangements.
Please contact us immediately. We may still be able to help you, if death occurred fewer than 24 hours ago. We are able to help about 50% of the families that contact us after death has occurred. You can improve our ability to help you quickly by providing information on:
- The clinical diagnosis, including who made the diagnosis, if the person was a neurologist or psychiatrist, and when the diagnosis was made.
- Name and contact information for the funeral home or cremation organization, decedent’s name and permission to share the name with the funeral home or cremation organization.
- Location of decedent: at the family’s home, care facility, funeral home, or coroner’s office.
- Confirmation that the healthcare power-of-attorney (or next of kin) will consent to the brain donation.
Also, please place several gallon-size re-sealable plastic bags (Ziploc-type bags) of ice around the head of the intended donor. No need to place ice on the face. This will slow down the degradation of brain tissue until the person can be refrigerated.
Brain Support Network staff does not work 24×7. However, as soon as we receive your message, we will respond to it and help as best we are able.
If death occurred more than 24 hours ago, brain donation is no longer possible. Your family may want to consider brain autopsy.
For a high-level summary of the process, see this outline.
The next step is for the family to provide the intended donor’s clinical diagnosis and location (city/state) along with the contact details for the funeral home/cremation organization. If the situation is urgent, the family can provide this information through the “Immediate Need” form. If the situation is urgent, we will ask the family what hospice and/or the care facility has indicated in terms of prognosis of their loved one. If the situation is not urgent, the family can use the “Soon” form.
BSN must know the intended donor’s clinical diagnosis as not all diagnoses are accepted by brain banks. Read our FAQ on eligibility.
BSN must know the location (city/state) of the intended donor as that greatly influences our ability to make brain donation arrangements. The laws in a few states (New York, for example) make brain donation very difficult to accomplish.
We are often asked why we need the funeral home or cremation organization information. In most cases, the brain donation work is performed at the funeral home or cremation organization. Therefore, the funeral home or cremation organization is often key to the brain donation. Read about the funeral home’s or cremation organization’s role here.
Once BSN receives the “Soon” or “Immediate” form, our brain donation case managers investigate the who, where, and current costs of brain donation, given the intended donor’s geographic location.
The “who” is usually a pathology specialist but it might be a pathologist. The pathology provider almost always charges a fee to the family. Read about the pathology specialist’s role here.
The “where” is usually the funeral home or cremation organization, as mentioned above. But not all funeral homes or cremation organizations are cooperative with the brain donation work occurring on their premises and not all are open seven days a week. Further, sometimes the pathology provider is unwilling to travel such that it’s better to have the intended donor transported to a location closer to the pathology provider. Transportation costs may be involved here. These are generally paid by the family to the funeral home or cremation organization as that business is usually providing the transportation.
BSN informs the family of the total costs involved. In general, the average cost to families for brain donation in the US is about $800. In California, the average cost to families is about $1,000. These are fees paid directly to the pathology specialist and funeral home (or cremation organization).
For some disorders (PD, LBD, FTD, Pick’s, PPA), a grant is available from Brain Support Network to families with a financial need.
For a few disorders (PSP, CBD, MSA), a grant of up to $750 is available to families from another non-profit organization, upon submission of receipts.
After reviewing the preliminary details and costs given by Brain Support Network, the family decides whether or not to proceed with BSN making arrangements. If ready, the family provides the intended donor’s full legal name, date of birth, and other details to BSN.
Brain Support Network then prepares detailed instructions for the family, pathology specialist, funeral home/cremation organization, hospice (if any), and care facility (if any).
Included in the detail instructions are the consent form and other paperwork. The family returns the signed consent form and other paperwork as soon as the situation requires. BSN shares the completed paperwork with all required parties.
Next, BSN prepares detailed instructions for the family on ordering specialist medical records and writing a family report for the brain bank. “Specialist medical records” include those from neurologists, movement disorder specialists, memory care or dementia specialists, psychiatrists, urologists, pulmonologists, cardiologists, neuro-ophthalmologists, and neuropsychologists. Of course the type of specialist is dependent on the diagnosis. In general, the brain bank is not interested in records from primary care physicians.
The family report is important to the brain bank because the family is often aware of symptoms and the timeline of decline in a way that a physician seen once or twice a year is not. BSN offers the family some guidelines for the family report.
Brain Support Network then updates the brain bank on the intended brain donation and the status of the family ordering/supplying specialist medical records and the family report.
When death is imminent (hours or days away), hospice should provide alerts to the pathology specialist and Brain Support Network. If significant time has gone by since the original instructions to the family, Brain Support Network will re-confirm all the arrangements.
When end of life occurs, hospice (or the care facility) will notify BSN. BSN will monitor the situation to ensure that the brain donation is successful. BSN updates the family when the work has been completed.
After the brain donation, if the family has a memorial service, BSN can provide a personalized memorial flyer about the family member, the clinical diagnosis, and the value of brain donation. Brain Support Network is grateful when families request memorial donations in lieu of flowers to come to us.
In general, about three months after the brain bank receives the tissue, specialist medical records, and the family report, the family can expect to receive the neuropathology report. About half the time families receive a confirmed diagnosis that is different from the clinical diagnosis. If your family shares the neuropathology report with Brain Support Network, we can share with you our comments and analysis on the report. As we have read many hundreds of these reports, we have a solid lay understanding of the terminology used in the reports.
We have helped over 800 families make arrangements for brain donation. We are honored to help your family too.
5. Role of the family and person giving consent5.1. Who can give consent for a brain donation?
States vary as to who can give consent. In some states, the person who gives consent for a brain donation must be the primary healthcare agent (power-of-attorney), as identified in a legal document. In other states, the next of kin can give consent. The next-of-kin is often a member of the donor’s immediate family, such as a spouse, eldest child, sibling, or designated guardian.
The donor’s consent is desired by some brain banks but is generally not required. Since the brain donation work must occur after the donor has died, the donor’s consent is not binding for those involved in the brain donation.
In some cases, families have not completed the legal document that identifies the primary healthcare agent (power-of-attorney). Many states allow this to be done with the signee placing an “X” on the signature line rather than a full signature. And many states don’t require a notary but two witness signatures. Some states (such as California) require that a person who lives in a care facility who signs such a document must have the document witnessed by a longterm care ombudsman.
If you aren’t sure if the primary healthcare agent (power-of-attorney) or legal next of kin will consent, please continue to discuss this and reach a firm decision before contacting Brain Support Network. Only you can make the right decision for your family.
The brain donor’s consent is not required. In many cases the donor cannot give consent because the donor is near death. In our experience the donor does not give consent in over half of brain donations.
The decision regarding brain donation is the responsibility of the healthcare agent (power-of-attorney) or next-of-kin. “Organ donations” that provide organs for transplant into living recipients are considered distinct from “brain donations” for autopsy and research.
Only your family can make a decision about this. Many families agree to brain donation on the grounds that the prospective donor was: (a) a person of science, (b) a person who supported the acquisition of knowledge, (c) a generous person who would do anything to help his/her family, (d) an organ donor who was willing to donate organs for transplant to save other lives, etc.
In our experience, most religions tend to support the donation of brain tissue. It is generally viewed as a compassionate and selfless act. Check with your local religious leader for more guidance.
6. Funeral home, pathology specialist, hospice agency, and care facility6.1. What does the funeral home or cremation organization do?
Sometimes we cannot locate a pathology specialist who will travel to the funeral home or cremation organization to do the work. In that case, the brain procurement work will occur at a morgue or medical facility such that the funeral home or cremation organization is providing roundtrip transportation to/from that facility. Note that sometimes two roundtrips are needed, depending on the availability of refrigeration at the funeral home or cremation organization, and on the proximity to the morgue or medical facility. We are then hoping that the funeral home or cremation organization charges a small fee for that transportation.
Of those that do charge, often there’s only a fee if the brain procurement must take place outside of regular business hours so that the business can pay to have an employee open up the facility and supervise the pathology specialist. We consider an after-hours fee of $150 to $300 to be reasonable. If a funeral home or cremation organization charges a fee during its normal business hours, we would consider a fee of $150 to be reasonable.
If the funeral home or cremation organization is providing transportation to/from a morgue or medical facility where the brain procurement will occur, it is ideal if this is provided for free. Though transportation rates vary by US region, we consider a transportation fee of $150 to $300 to be reasonable, if the donor must be transported a 100 miles or so one-way.
Yes, an open casket service or viewing is still possible. We prefer to know that this is the family’s wish in advance so we can request the pathology service provide extra attention.
Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), also known as “mad cow disease,” is transmissible through infected brain tissue. If CJD is suspected, very strict protocols for tissue handling must be followed by the funeral home, pathology specialist, and brain bank. We refer all suspected CJD cases to a specialized brain bank.
We seldom come across suspected CJD cases. It is a rare disorder. Those with CJD usually die within six months of diagnosis and within a year of first symptoms.
7. Selection of a brain bank7.1. Where is the best place to donate my loved one’s brain?
Note the caveat above about a brain bank having “published research in major medical journals on the diagnosis you are interested in” as it’s one thing to have a brain bank but another thing to actually utilize donated brain tissue for important research.
If your loved one hasn’t been seen at a major medical institution with an established bank or if you aren’t very impressed with the brain bank at the major medical institution, we can help explore your options. The options are largely based on your loved one’s clinical diagnosis. There may be options available based upon where your loved one lives.
In general, we determine which brain bank is best for a particular brain donation based on:
- The clinical diagnosis. Not all brain banks are interested in all diagnoses.
- The research that the brain bank has published on a particular neurological disorder. One key aspect of brain donation is to enable research. If the brain is going to be donated to a brain bank, we want to be sure the brain will actually be utilized for research, not just sit on a shelf or in a freezer. Most major brain banks in the US that receive NIH funds, for example, have tissue sharing programs such that donated tissue is distributed to qualified researchers outside the specific brain bank where the tissue was donated.
- Turnaround time for the neuropathology report. Many brain banks need 18 months or longer to return the neuropathology report to the family. This seems like a very long wait for the family to learn the confirmed diagnosis of their loved one. We prefer brain banks where the turnaround time for the neuropathology report is less than six months—ideally, three or four months after a loved one’s passing.
- Expense to the family. A few brain banks pay all the costs associated with the brain donation. These brain banks have limited funds and might only be able to accept 100 cases a year, assuming the cost to them is around $1,000 for the tissue procurement, $2,000 for the tissue analysis, and more for storage. Other brain banks ask the family to pay the costs associated with the tissue procurement, and they will pay for the analysis of the tissue, provide the report to the family, and bank the tissue. Typically, the cost associated with brain donation is $1,000 in high cost-of-living geographies (e.g. California), and $800 elsewhere in the US. Often grants are available to families to defray these costs, depending on the diagnosis.
Once we learn the details for a particular brain donation, we can present options to the family.
The best way is to check out the PubMed website, pubmed.gov. This is a US government website that lists all of the research published in major medical journals around the world. To do a search, you might enter the following key words:
- Frontotemporal dementia (or whatever disorder you are interested in)
- Mayo (or whatever institution you are interested in)
- Autopsy-confirmed (this gets at whether the diagnosis was confirmed through autopsy)
Scan through the titles of the journal articles to see how many meet your criteria.
8. Brain donation costs8.1. How much does brain donation cost?
Typically the cost associated with brain donation is $1,000 in high cost-of-living geographies (e.g. California), and $800 elsewhere in the US. These are fees paid directly to the pathology specialist and funeral home (or cremation organization). Many funeral homes do not charge a fee. Neither brain banks nor Brain Support Network charges a fee.
For a few disorders, grants are available to families. For progressive supranuclear palsy, multiple system atrophy, and corticobasal degeneration, a grant up to $750 is available from another non-profit, CurePSP, upon submission of receipts, as long as the brain is donated to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida.
For Parkinson’s Disease, Lewy Body Dementia, Dementia with Lewy Bodies, and Frontotemporal Dementia, Brain Support Network makes small grants in the case of financial need when brains are donated to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. The grant is paid after brain donation is complete, and neurological records and written family information are submitted to the Mayo Clinic.
No. However, a donation to Brain Support Network, intended to help other families in the future, is tax deductible.
Brain Support Network requests that every family we assist with brain donation arrangements make a charitable contribution. Through this pay-it-forward approach, your contribution allows us to assist another family in the future, and past families’ contributions allow us to assist your family. A $500 contribution allows us to help one family; a $1,000 contribution allows us to help two families; and so on. Some families prefer to request memorial donations in lieu of flowers to come to our non-profit.
9. Steps taken after death9.1. What steps are key once death occurs?
Upon death, the donor should be refrigerated as soon as possible.
Everyone involved in the brain donation effort must be notified: funeral home or cremation organization, pathology specialist, and Brain Support Network.
Brain procurement should take place as soon as possible after death, and must take place within 24 hours of death, without exception. Normally the brain procurement takes place at a funeral home or cremation organization. Sometimes the brain procurement takes place at a third-party facility, such as a morgue, hospital, coroner’s office, or medical examiner’s office.
The brain procurement is done according to the brain bank’s protocol. The specialist replaces the skull removed for the brain removal and sutures the skin closed. Then, final arrangements continue as planned for the donor.
Once extracted, the brain is handled consistent with the brain bank’s protocol. For the Mayo Clinic Jacksonville protocol, one half (right) is frozen, most often in dry ice or a special freezer; one half is “fixed” (i.e. immersed) in formalin. The two halves are shipped to the brain bank in separate containers, usually within a week or two of death.
Often, people who die unexpectedly end up at the coroner’s office. All efforts must be made to get the coroner’s office to release the decedent as soon as possible because Brain Support Network has never seen a case where, under these circumstances, a brain procurement was permitted at the coroner’s facilities.
It is best if efforts to release the decedent are made by the family. Brain Support Network has no legal standing to discuss personal matters with a coroner’s office.
If the family has not already done so, the family should order all neurological records be sent to the brain bank, and provide any other family background information (in written form) that the brain bank requires. These records and written family information are critical for the brain bank. It is ideal if the records and written family information are at the brain bank before the tissue arrives.
10. Neuropathology report and brain research10.1. Will our family receive a report about the diagnosis? If so, when will this be received?
Yes, your family will receive a written report as to the diagnosis. The donated tissue is analyzed at the brain bank, in conjunction with the neurological records and written family information.
If you donate a loved one’s brain to the Mayo Clinic in Florida, a neuropathology report and cover letter can be expected within 3-4 months of the receipt of the brain tissue, neurological records, and written family information.
If you donate a loved one’s brain to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, a neuropathology report can be expected within 6 months of the receipt of the brain tissue.
Many other brain banks require 18 months to return the report to the family.
If you donate a loved one’s brain to the Mayo Clinic in Florida, a copy of the neuropathology report is sent to the pathology specialist who handled the brain procurement. If your loved one saw a physician at the Mayo Clinic, the neuropathology report may become part of your loved one’s medical record. If you donate a loved one’s brain to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, your loved one’s report will be shared with the Mayo Clinic physician your family member saw.
Many families provide the report to the neurologists, psychiatrists, and other physicians involved in their loved one’s care so that the physicians may learn from the report.
Many families arrange conference calls with the primary neurologist who made the diagnosis to discuss clinical-pathologic correlations. You might consider involving multiple families members in this conference call and, with everyone’s permission, record it. During this conference call, adult children may be interested in asking if their parent’s confirmed diagnosis increases the chances the adult children will have a similar neurological disorder.
Some adult children provide their parent’s neuropathology report to their own primary care physician and ask that the report be added to their own medical record as evidence of family medical history.
Genetics tests may be done on donated tissue but these results are not directly shared with the family. Any genetics testing where results are shared with family must be done by a CLIA-certified lab and utilize the services of a genetics counselor. Brain banks are not CLIA-certified.
Top-tier brain banks, like the Mayo Clinic, will use donated tissue for research, either at the brain bank itself or at the facilities of other researchers around the world.
The best way to learn about this is to sign up for notifications from PubMed (pubmed.gov) when the brain bank (and chief neuropathologist) has authored a research publication utilizing donated brain tissue for the diagnosis your loved one was thought to have had during life or was found to have had through post-mortem analysis.
For example, you might sign up to be alerted for any publications matching this criteria:
- Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (or the neurological disorder in which you are interested in)
- Mayo Clinic (or another institution you specify
- Dickson (the name of the chief neuropathologist at the Mayo Clinic in Florida)
- Autopsy-confirmed (this indicates whether the diagnosis was confirmed through autopsy)
All brain tissue is valuable for research, regardless of the clinical or pathologic diagnosis. Brain banks are still conducting major research on Alzheimer’s brains.
11. Body donation and other organ donation11.1. We are also interested in body donation. Is this possible in addition to brain donation?
Perhaps. It depends on whether the body donation organization you’ve selected is willing to accept a donated body with the brain removed. Some university medical centers and some for-profit organizations will accept such bodies; some do not. If the organization you’ve selected is not willing to accept a donated body with the brain removed, you will have to decide which is more important—brain donation or body donation. Only you can make the right decision!
Generally, when people ask about “organ donation,” they are thinking about the donation of heart, lungs, kidneys, etc. Organ donation may be possible when someone (e.g. after a vehicular accident or other major trauma) is pronounced brain-dead at the hospital while machines are used to maintain function of the heart and lungs. (Fewer than 1% of hospital deaths meet this criteria.) This sort of organ donation for purposes of transplant is not possible when someone dies at home or in a care facility, due to natural causes.
If someone dies at home or in a care facility due to natural causes, donation of tissue (such as skin, heart valves, veins), bone and connective tissue, whole eye, and cornea for transplant may still be possible. The timing and mechanics of this can be challenging to organize in conjunction with the brain donation. The brain must be removed within 24 hours of death and can be done in a non-sterile environment. Usually skin, bone, and cornea must be removed quickly after death and this work must be done in a sterile environment. You may have to decide which is more important: brain donation or other donation.
If this is of interest, we recommend you speak with the organization governing organ donation in your state. Learn which body parts are accepted in the case of natural death. Learn any exclusion criteria (e.g. age, gender, weight, cause of death, whether infectious disease such as MRSA is present, etc). Second, we recommend that you speak with the funeral home or cremation organization that you intend to use. Review their process and learn if they are willing to facilitate organ donation.
Brain donation is not part of organ donation. The focus of the “organ donation” associated with the pink dot on your driver’s license is donation for transplant. This sort of organ donation is only possible when someone is in a vehicular accident, is pronounced brain-dead at the hospital (by two physicians), and the heart and lungs are kept going via machines.
We have met a handful of people over the years interested in brain donation and body autopsy. This means that the brain is procured and sent to a brain bank for analysis, and the body is examined (but not donated). Generally, both the brain procurement and the body autopsy—often called a “general autopsy”—are handled by a single pathologist. In a general autopsy, a visual inspection of organs and systems occurs and samples from organs are removed; this often requires 4-5 hours of work. Later, tissue samples are examined under a microscope. A report is provided to the legal next-of-kin within 1-2 months. Just as with brain autopsy, a body autopsy can yield valuable information about the nature and severity of disease. This medical information can be useful to surviving blood relatives, particularly children. Sometimes the cause of death can be determined, which can provide peace of mind.
Ask your local funeral home or cremation organization if they can assist you in arranging a “private autopsy.” Brain autopsy costs about $4,000 in the US. The range is perhaps as low as $2,500 and as high as $6,000 (New York state and California). Ask which pathologist will be receiving tissue samples and performing the analysis. Ask how long it will take to obtain a report. Learn if there’s an opportunity to follow up with the pathologist and ask questions after receiving the report.
Sometimes major university medical centers will perform a general autopsy at no or minimal charge to the family as long as the person has a medical record number from that medical center (or has been seen there previously). Again, the local funeral home or cremation organization may know about this. Or contact the autopsy department at the major university medical center. Often autopsies are only done Monday to Friday, 7am to 3pm, and are handled by pathology residents. Generally these are only done at the morgue of the university medical center. This means that the family may have to pay the funeral home or cremation organization for roundtrip transportation to/from the morgue. If a university medical center is involved in the body autopsy, coordination will be key as most likely the brain procurement will need to take place at the funeral home or cremation organization within a few hours of death, and then the decedent transported to the medical center’s morgue for the body autopsy to occur.
12. Other12.1. What should I put in my living will or will about brain donation?
It is helpful to have something in your living will about brain donation. A living will is part of your advance health care directive. You can direct your healthcare power-of-attorney to make advance arrangements for your brain donation once you are placed on hospice or hospitalized with a serious condition (such as pneumonia). You can state your preference for brain donation rather than brain autopsy, and you can state your preference that you’d like your brain to go to a brain bank that actively publishes research using donated brain tissue into the disorder you have. If you’d like, you can also direct your healthcare power-of-attorney to contact Brain Support Network for advice about the brain donation and arrangements, as appropriate. Ideally, you should discuss now your interest in brain donation with your primary and secondary healthcare agents.
Generally a will distributes your assets after your death, and it is often not read until some period of time after death occurs. Putting something in your will about brain donation is not helpful.
“DNA banking” is a new business category where brain tissue, blood, or CSF (cerebrospinal fluid) of a deceased family member is banked. Generally, the family must pay an annual fee to continue to store this tissue or fluid. The value of this isn’t yet clear to us because these DNA banks are generally not involved in medical research.
Over the years, we have heard of two cases of brain biopsy. In many cases, a brain biopsy is simply an unnecessary risk because most of these disorders do not have treatments or cures, making diagnosis less valuable than in other circumstances. Further, a brain biopsy only extracts a small piece of brain tissue which would not indicate pathologies that may be present in other regions of the brain.