Why I use human brain tissue in my research
There are more than 12,000 brains stored and ready for use by researchers in ten banks across the country ― and they’re easier to access than you might think. Here Dr L. Miguel Martins from the MRC Toxicology Unit explains what he gets out of working with brain tissue and provides some tips for researchers starting out.
I found out about the availability of deceased human brain tissue for my work because I have long-term collaborations ― since at least 2003 ― with colleagues at the UCL Institute of Neurology, which supports the Queen Square Brain Bank for Neurological Disorders, part of the UK Brain Banks Network.
My team’s research focuses on studying the genetics and cell signalling networks involved in Parkinson’s disease. I see using human brain tissue as being able to come full circle: Parkinson’s is a human disease which we investigate using animal models of the disease, and then validate in brain tissue donated by patients with Parkinson’s.
We need three types of brain tissue for our research. These include samples from people with rare, genetic forms of Parkinson’s and if we confirm our findings in that tissue we broaden it out to see whether these findings are also replicated in patients with the more common forms of Parkinson’s where the cause is unknown (idiopathic Parkinson’s disease). We also need healthy tissue to use as controls ― this is available in brain banks but it is more difficult to come across tissue from healthy donors.
Because of the nature of our work, very little of what we do is anatomical – we’re looking for alterations in particular proteins or molecules such as RNA.
We have made several findings in animal models that were, at least partially, confirmed in human brains. These have included finding that a mutation in a gene that causes Parkinson’s called PINK1 activates particular signalling networks in diseased brains.
You should seriously consider using the precious resource of human brain tissue ― it is extremely rewarding when a new finding in an animal model is replicated in humans. Human brains are, and will remain, a valuable tool to be used alongside population genetics and using stem cell technology to grow and study living neurons from both living and dead patients.
Of course there are limitations. Although the samples are prepared in a standard manner, there will be variability in the quality of particular molecules such as RNA – the samples come from different people, were collected at different times post-mortem and have been stored for varying times.
In our lab we’ve been using brain tissue for years, so we have a rigorous quality control in place to ensure that samples are comparable. It’s also worth engaging with the team who collect and curate the samples at the brain bank — they have expert knowledge on how to access and process these samples.
They can also advise on seemingly simple things like how many samples to order to ensure that you can carry out a good experiment ― for molecular analysis at least it’s not as simple as comparing just two samples of brain tissue.
There’s a perception ― which I used to share ― that there is a lot of red tape involved in accessing brain tissue, but that hasn’t been my experience at all. There is information available in the online database and lots of experts to help.
In summary, consider using this resource ― it’s really valuable and I’m always grateful to the people who so generously donated it.
L. Miguel Martins
Find out more about the UK Brain Banks Network.