• sophiellewellyn19

Parkinson's UK Brain Bank: Sophie's Experience

On Friday 25th of March, Ian and I went to the Parkinson's UK brain bank at Imperial College London to pick up the human brain samples for my research assistant project. We were hosted by Djordje Gveric, who manages the tissue bank. He showed us into the lab where we were surrounded by hundreds of brains; whole, cut and sliced, both fixed and frozen, with a prep area and rather large -80 degrees Celsius freezers. Ian had worked at this brain bank during his PhD and explained to me the process of collecting the brains, then cutting the them into sections, and fixing/freezing the brains to preserve them for future use. Some brains also had cerebrospinal fluid and spinal cords to accompany them, which can also be useful for research.


Once Djordje packaged up our samples, he very kindly allowed me to hold whole human brain. This was quite an experience for me; a huge part of my neuroscience bucket list to be ticked off, one I thought I may never have the opportunity to do. I always envisioned it would be an amazing experience to hold the very thing responsible for our movements, thoughts, personalities, and ultimately our uniqueness, and I was not disappointed. Holding a brain in my hands felt like I was holding someone's entire life, a very humbling and emotional experience, which filled me with a strong sense of gratitude toward the donor and scientific awe (clearly seen on my face below).



Djordje also showed me a brain cut in half down the middle. He pointed out some anatomy and nerves, which I had only previously seen on diagrams or in mice (which differ from humans). It was a great opportunity to truly contextualise the neuroscience I had learned during my degrees. I could even see some colour in the substantia nigra; a naturally dark coloured brain region (due to the presence of neuromelanin) which loses its pigment in Parkinson's disease (PD).



My project focuses on the protein aquaporin-4 which facilitates glymphatic fluid movement in and out of the brain. I will be looking at early and late stage PD brains to see if there is a correlation between disease severity and amounts/locations of aquaporin-4. This may lead to conclusions as to whether targeting the glymphatic system could be of therapeutic benefit to PD patients or people who may have a high risk of developing the disease. All my results will have to be compared to control cases (non-PD brain tissue), in order to see if the changes we may observe are altered by disease processes. For me, using human brain tissue for human brain disease research is the pinnacle of neuroscience; and I am really thrilled I get to work with these samples.


Even as a carer for a Parkinson's patient, and a neuroscientist myself, I hadn't given too much thought to donating my brain. I feel like it's not a widely discussed topic, even when you know people affected by neurological diseases. I recently became and organ donor and my brain brank experience has encouraged me to think more about brain donation, as this is not included with the NHS organ donation form but rather must be done by contacting a brain bank directly. It's important to note that brain banks not only need diseased brains, but control brains too, in order for researchers like me to compare our results to. Hence, I have decided to start the process of donating my brain to the very bank I visited. That way (control or otherwise) I will always have a legacy in contributing to neurodegenerative disease research.


Ian (@IanH_Neurosci) tweeted some pictures of me from our visit which were picked up by the Imperial College London communications team. They were writing an article about the importance of tissue donation to Parkinson's disease research and the function of the Imperial College Brain Bank. We were invited to write a case study of my project and how the Parkinson's disease tissue will be used. The article also follows Rory Cellan-Jones; a technology journalist living with Parkinson's disease who has decided to donate his brain to the brain bank. You can see the full article 'The scientist and the donor' here.



If you feel inspired to donate, or want to gather more information about brain donations and brain banks, please see the links below.


"Pre-pandemic, we would frequently give tours of the facility to people who want to find out more about what we do here – we are starting to resume these, and people are very welcome to visit. -  Prof Steve Gentleman

If you want to know any further information/have questions about my project please get in touch by emailing ian.harrison@ucl.ac.uk.

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