Brain Bank FAQs

For the past 7 months I’ve been working as a technician at the Parkinson’s Disease and Multiple Sclerosis Brain Bank. It’s been a brilliant job for me…though it does tend to stop people in their tracks when I tell them what I do.

Here are some of the common questions I’ve been asked by friends, family, taxi drivers, acquiescences in the pub…

If you have a question you’d like me to answer please comment below or ask me on twitter


What do you do with the brains?

I’ll refer you to my previous post on working in a brain bank, and this video of Professor Steve Gentleman at Pint of Science explaining what happens when were receive the brain.

What do you mean ‘on call’?

It is part of the job as technician to be on call 1 week in 4. We are accompanied by an assistant – usually a PhD student from the surrounding labs on the floor, and a co-ordinator – usually the brain bank manager, brain bank director or PI. This means that for 7 days a week one technician is assigned to collect any donated brains and on the weekend, when private transport is occasionally used for more local donations, to set up the dissection room. Assistants are rarely asked to collect tissue but are essential in helping with dissection. Co-ordinators carry a pager 24/7 so they can be alerted of an impending donation, contact the rest of the team and are in charge of dissecting the brain.

How do you collect/move the brains?

When a death is reported and all the necessary paperwork and transportation is arranged, one of the technician team is sent to collect the brain. We travel on public transport all over the UK. This includes a buses, tubes, trains and finally a taxi to get us too and from the hospital in question. Once there we are directed to the morgue where the brain is signed over to us to transport back to Imperial College at Hammersmith Hospital for dissection.

The brain is transported in a cool bag containing a large round metal container within which the brain is placed in another plastic bucket or bag.

Do you do any research?

The brain bank exists to facilitate research in groups around the world by providing tissue from the brain and spinal cord of disease and control subjects.

The brain bank doesn’t carry out any of it’s own research as running the bank is a full time job for 7 people and requires 3 people to be on call 24/7 all year round- there’s just no time to fit any research in!

Can you tell the sex of a person by looking at their brain?

[this was by far the question I was asked the most]

Short answer: by just glancing at a brain, no.

When we collect a brain and it comes into the bank we usually know the sex of the donor so don’t need to make that guess.

There have many investigations published in peer reviewed journals comparing the male and female brain.

One such study compared brain volume by doing a systematic review of literature to look for and compare data from MRI scans. This study concluded that ‘on average, males have larger brain volumes than females’. Another study compared the post-mortem brain weight of males and females and found male brains to be an average of 130 grams larger than female brains.

If you look at these studies you’ll notice that they compare a total of at least 100 subjects and the results are averages.

In practice while working at the brain bank, we see female brains that appear larger and heavier than average and some male brains that seem smaller or lighter than average. As with many things there is a natural variation among individuals and size does not relate to intelligence!

For more detail about understanding the differences in structure between the male and female brain, here’s a great blog on the subject by Mo Costandi – ‘Male versus female brain: How do they differ?’

How do you eat your lunch after you’ve touched those brains?

We wear gloves when dealing with fresh/frozen tissue and sight of blood or wobbly brains does not put me off food AT ALL. In fact it’s hungry work moving around all those brains!

How does a brain feel?

The closest description to the feeling of a ‘fresh’ brain is that it’s like jelly. It has to be handled with care, too much pressure and you can destroy the structure, yet I can still be sliced and moved.

After freezing in isopentane, the brain sections are hard, fairly brittle, and can melt if left out of storage.

After ‘fixing’ in formaldehyde the brain remains flexible but is firmer than when fresh, retaining it’s morphology.

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