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Can a brain be donated?

Donating a brain is possible through anatomical gift programs in the United States. However, there are specific requirements and procedures that must be followed for brain donation. Understanding the basics of brain donation can help you determine if this is an option you want to arrange.

What are the requirements for brain donation?

There are a few key requirements for donating a brain after death:

  • The donor must consent to brain donation before death. This is usually done by registering as an organ donor or signing up specifically for brain donation through a brain bank program.
  • The death must occur under specific conditions that preserve brain tissue. This usually means dying in a hospital on life support. Brains need to be recovered quickly after blood flow stops.
  • The donor’s medical history must be free of certain infectious diseases and conditions that would make the brain unsuitable for research or education.
  • The closest next of kin must also provide consent for brain donation after the donor’s death.

Brain banks affiliated with major medical research centers have their own criteria for accepting donated brains. They screen potential donors to determine if their brains would be valuable for advancing research on brain disorders and conditions.

How does the brain donation process work?

Here are the typical steps involved in the brain donation process:

  1. Pre-registration. Potential donors can pre-register with a brain donation program. This includes providing medical records and signing a consent form.
  2. Donor dies. The donor dies under circumstances that allow for quick brain recovery, such as in a hospital on life support.
  3. Consent from next of kin. The brain bank seeks consent from the donor’s legal next of kin to proceed with donation.
  4. Brain recovery. The brain is surgically recovered by the brain bank’s team within 24 hours of death.
  5. Testing and storage. The brain is examined, tissue samples are taken, and the remaining brain is preserved through freezing or chemical fixation.
  6. Research and education. The donated brain can then be used for various authorized research studies or for training medical students and neurologists.

This complex process requires close coordination between the donor (or their legal representatives), the brain bank, the hospital where death occurs, the medical examiner’s office, and the funeral home managing the donor’s remains.

What are brains donated for?

Donated human brains are used for several important purposes by researchers, including:

  • Studying the biological pathways and changes associated with brain disorders and conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autism, concussions, and more.
  • Developing new diagnostic tests, biomarkers, and personalized medicine approaches.
  • Advancing efforts to repair damaged brains and develop neuro-prosthetics.
  • Training surgeons and researchers in brain anatomy, imaging, and handling techniques.
  • Educating medical students, neurologists, and neuroscientists through hands-on study.

Specific research projects using donated human brain tissue must be reviewed and approved by institutional ethics committees to ensure appropriate use.

What tissues and data are collected?

Brain banks collect different types of data and samples from donated brains. Here are some examples:

  • Medical history, demographics, family history, and lifestyle data about the donor
  • CT/MRI scans and autopsy reports
  • Tissue samples fixed for microscopy
  • Flash frozen tissue for biochemical studies
  • RNA and DNA extracts used in genetic research
  • snarled or malformed proteins extracted from the brain

All data and samples are cataloged in the brain bank’s registry and made available to researchers once anonymized. Strict protocols protect donor confidentiality.

How are brains preserved and stored?

Brain banks use various specialized methods to preserve donated brains for research use and long-term storage. Here are some of the main approaches:

  • Fixation: Brains are immersed in chemical fixatives like formalin or paraformaldehyde solutions which crosslink proteins and stop decay.
  • Cryopreservation: Brains are slowly frozen to very low temperatures (e.g. -80°C) to preserve tissue in frozen state.
  • Perfusion: Fixative chemicals are circulated through the brain’s blood vessels to “fix” the tissue from the inside out.
  • Dehydration: Water is removed from brain tissue either through freezing or using alcohol solutions.
  • Plastination: Resins and polymers are infused into the brain to replace water and create durable specimens.

Fixed or frozen brains are then stored in secure brain banks for approved research use. Storage times can extend for decades.

Are there regional brain banks in the U.S.?

Yes, there are a number of major regional brain and tissue banks across the United States. Examples include:

Brain Bank Location
Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center Belmont, Massachusetts
University of Maryland Brain and Tissue Bank Baltimore, Maryland
Stanley Neuropathology Consortium Baltimore, Maryland
The Mount Sinai NIH Brain and Tissue Repository New York City, New York
University of Miami Brain Endowment Bank Miami, Florida
NINDS Human Brain and Spinal Fluid Resource Center Los Angeles, California

These brain banks collect, store, and distribute donated brains for research at many institutions nationwide.

What should people consider when deciding on brain donation?

Those considering brain donation should think about these key factors:

  • Are you comfortable with donating your brain after death instead of traditional burial or cremation?
  • Will your next of kin also consent to brain donation after your death?
  • Do you want to restrict use of your brain data and samples, or are you open to any research?
  • Does your medical history suggest your brain may, or may not, be useful for certain studies?
  • Have you already made arrangements to donate your other organs?
  • Do you have specific research programs or institutions you want to support?

Discussing wishes about brain donation ahead of time can give family members clarity. Being an organ and tissue donor is a personal choice that can potentially help advance medicine.

How can people arrange future brain donation?

If you decide you want to become a future brain donor, here are some tips on how to go about it:

  • Choose a brain bank program at an established university or research institution.
  • Look for their donor registration process online and follow the steps provided.
  • Provide your medical records to screen for any disqualifying conditions.
  • Formally consent and sign up as a donor-in-waiting through the required paperwork.
  • Inform key family members of your plans to donate your brain.
  • Carry a donor card to make your wishes known.

It also helps to clearly specify your wishes in your will, advance directive, or other end-of-life documents. Taking these steps while you are living will facilitate the donation process later.


Donating your brain for scientific research or medical education is a unique way to contribute to advancing knowledge after death. While brain donation has specific requirements compared to organ donation, it can be arranged ahead of time through outreach to university brain banks. Making your wishes known and completing the necessary prep work will allow your brain to be recovered quickly after death and used to potentially help make discoveries into crippling brain disorders. Careful consideration of your motivations, values, and family’s feelings can help determine if brain donation is the right choice for you.