Local brain bank receives first donations of brains for research

Brain specimens are deep frozen in Brain Bank Singapore.
Brain specimens are deep frozen in Brain Bank Singapore.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - The one-year-old Brain Bank Singapore (BBS) welcomed its first two "deposits" this year, with the first of two brains donated on Sept 10.

Retrieving the brain is no mean feat. The body's powerhouse, which weighs 1.2kg on average, has to be carefully - and very respectfully - removed from the back or the top of the head of the dead person. This needs to be done within 24 to 48 hours to preserve the quality of the brain tissues, and the process takes around an hour.

The person's skull is replaced before the scalp is stitched up. This allows for an open casket funeral to be conducted.

Having a brain bank in Singapore is critical, Dr Joan Sim, manager at Brain Bank Singapore told The Straits Times.

"The genetic background of brain tissues supplied by European and American tissue collections is not the same as the Asian genetics, and this will impact the research discoveries and also potentially the new drugs that are developed," Dr Sim said.

"Having our own local brain bank will allow us to study our own patient cohorts to help understand how the Asian genetic background and the environment interacts to determine the characteristics of brain diseases amongst Singaporeans."

Neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease are on the rise.

Dr Adeline Ng, a senior consultant neurologist at the National Neuroscience Institute, said: "It's hard to imagine the depth of frustration patients face as they gradually lose control of their bodies and minds.

"Those who register as BBS donors give hope to patients and their families that a cure can be found and leave a legacy of better brain health for future generations."

Currently, there are 71 registered brain donors, of whom two have died. Anyone above the age of 21 is eligible for brain donation and no upper age limit exists.

However, donors must not have had any active serious infectious diseases such as hepatitis B and the human immunodeficiency virus. Those who die in an accident will also not be eligible to donate if an autopsy needs to be conducted.

The BBS, which was set up on Nov 27 last year, is currently in an early stage of donor recruitment.

The first donor was a woman in her 70s. The donor's sister said she had been a blood donor for many years and had decided to donate her organs.

While her skin and cornea were assessed to be unsuitable for research and transplant purposes, her brain was deemed feasible.

"It is great knowing that I was able to fulfil my sister's wishes for her organs to be used in a meaningful way, by providing consent on her behalf for her brain to be donated to BBS for research and medical studies," her sister told ST.


Dr Joan Sim, 36, manager at Brain Bank Singapore, with the right hemisphere of a brain of a woman in her 70s, the first donated to Brain Bank Singapore. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

The brain was retrieved at the Procedural Skills lab in the Singapore General Hospital. An open casket funeral and cremation took place the next day.

Professor Richard Reynolds, director at BBS, said: "Having a wake with an open casket is important, as it allows family members to pay their respects to the deceased and helps them grieve. Our donors are truly special people and their bodies are treated with the utmost respect to make sure such funeral rites can take place."

At the BBS, half the brain is then cut into smaller blocks of 2cms by 2cms and frozen at minus 80 deg C, while the other half is preserved in a solution and then embedded in paraffin wax for study.

Brain tissues and cerebral spinal fluid, the fluid in the brain and spinal cord, can be stored in the freezer for around 10 to 20 years.


The right hemisphere of a brain of a woman in her 70s, the first donated to Brain Bank Singapore. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Those interested in becoming donors can visit this website, call 6592 6952 or e-mail brainbanksingapore@ntu.edu.sg.

Adults aged 18 years and above can also opt to donate their organs or any other body parts for the purposes of transplant, education or research after they die via the Medical (Therapy, Education and Research) Act (MTERA).

This is unlike the Human Organ Transplant Act (Hota), which covers all Singaporeans and permanent residents above the age of 21. The Hota allows for the kidneys, heart, liver and corneas to be removed for transplantation if a person dies, unless he has opted out.