Working for a Brain Bank

For the last 7 months I have worked as a laboratory technician at the joint Multiple Sclerosis Society and Parkinson’s UK Tissue Bank, based at Imperial College London.

I had already encountered the tissue/brain bank before, having spent some of my masters using brain tissue to investigate neuronal loss in multiple sclerosis. A few months after I graduated a technician post was advertised, so I went for it!

I worked in the lab as part of a team of 4 technicians to keep brain bank running. This role included collecting donated brains from around the UK and assisting with dissection. The bank is on call 24 hours a day and we have to collect brains ‘fresh’ within 48 hours, but the sooner the better. This means travelling to different parts of the country, on public transport, with a human brain in a nondescript bag (!) – a secure metal container is carried within.

1st rule of Brain Banking- don't leave a brain on a train

1st rule of Brain Banking- don’t leave a brain on a train

Once the brain gets back to our dissection room at Hammersmith Hospital, we start the process of storing the tissue. Half the brain is ‘fixed’ in formalin to retain morphology and prevent decomposition. The other half is dissected then cut in to blocks which are immediately frozen in isopentane. This frozen tissue is important for a wide range of experiments looking into the genetics and biochemistry of the diseases in question.

Steve Gentleman is one of the neuropathologists who works with the bank. At Pint of Science 2013 he explained what happens when we receive a brain and the role of the bank in tackling disease.

He also talks through a fixed brain dissection in this short film made for the exhibition ‘Brains: Mind as Matter‘ by the Wellcome Collection.

Day to day, the majority of my time was spent cutting tissue for requests from research groups around the world. This could be frozen tissue or tissue that had been fixed then embedded in wax.

Microtome - cuts wax ebedded tissue - usually to 6-7um

Microtome – cuts wax tissue – usually to 6-7um

Cryostat - cuts frozen tissue to ~10um - set at -15 to -25 degrees

Cryostat – cuts frozen tissue to ~10um – set at -15 to -25 degrees

These machines cut sections just microns thick which we then transfer to microscope slides to be sent off for disease research. Sections are also cut and stained with various histological dyes to identify pathology help and neuropathologists correctly diagnose the brains donated.

Wax embedded tissue ready to be sent off for research

Wax embedded tissue ready to be sent off for research

Stained slides to be sent to a neuropathologist for diagnosis - by my wonderful colleague Julia

Stained slides to be sent to neuropathologist for diagnosis – by my wonderful colleague Julia

My job also included any other tasks needed to keep the brain bank running. This meant moving 100’s of buckets of fixed brains around, cleaning mould off storage containers and moving specimens after -80 degree freezer malfunctions. The brain bank contains around 2000 whole disease and control brains split up into over 100,000 individual samples, so there’s always something to keep you on your toes.

Undoubtedly the ‘highlight’ of my time at the bank is having the privilege to handle the human brain. Much as dealing with brains is a part of the job it is hard to lose sight of the fact that you are effectively holding everything someone once was. You also enter a different world where conversations during dissection spread into the weird and wonderful, for example, commenting happily on the clarity of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) or delighting on the ease of which the brain is cut. Though as with any job talk often drifts onto the completely unrelated: weekend plans, football, music and politics.

During my time at the brain bank I’ve definitely brushed up on my neuroanatomy, become pretty expert at histological sectioning and had some strange chats with taxi drivers! It’s also helped reinforce why I want to keep working in science and has made me even more determined to go back to being a student and get a PhD.

Overall I’ve had a great time, working with brilliant people in one of the strangest job around.

There’s probably no better job for an aspiring neuroscientist.

Proud to work for PDUK

Proud to work for PDUK

Further Reading:

An article written about the Steve Gentleman and the bank for New Scientist in 2013

Information about the UK Brain Banks Network

Information on donating your brain from the Human Tissue Authority

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3 Responses to Working for a Brain Bank

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