Working life: Brain bank manager Dr Laura Palmer
Dr Laura Palmer is the manager of the South West Dementia Brain Bank at the University of Bristol, which is part of the MRC-led UK Brain Banks Network. Here she tells us about her working life, the pressure of a part-time PhD, and why people are always fascinated by her job.
Career in brief
- Undergraduate degree in pathology and microbiology
- Eleven years at the South West Dementia Brain Bank, starting as the bank technician and becoming brain bank manager
- Part-time PhD over eight years while working at the bank
As soon as I saw a job at the bank advertised I knew it was perfect for me. It brought together my degree knowledge with my interest in dementia stemming from my grandma’s vascular dementia. I didn’t have all of the necessary experience but I was persistent and keen to learn. At the time of my interview I was working nights in a supermarket!
Things have changed dramatically in the brain bank while I’ve been here. We’ve really grown and developed – we used to accept about 12 donations a year, now it’s more like 40. Public awareness of brain donation has increased really positively.
I called my PhD the ‘never-ending thesis’. It took eight years when I’d hoped to complete it in six. I began it part-time within about a year of starting to work here, funded by a wonderful local charity called BRACE which supports a lot of the bank’s work. Balancing my PhD with my job and trying to have a life was really difficult. It’s fantastic to be able to focus solely on my job now.
Having done the PhD means I can offer better advice to researchers looking to use brain bank samples. I used brain bank tissue in my PhD so I can advise on things like sample analysis and experimental design. I don’t mind not being directly involved in research at the moment – I’m concentrating on making this fantastic resource available for others.
Watch the video below to hear some of Laura’s thoughts on working at the brain bank.
Day to day, my main role is speaking to potential donors and their families. I’m very much involved in the coordination of the donations, so that means liaising with the family as well as the funeral director, GP, coroner and mortuary staff. Another big part of my job is making sure we comply with the legislative and ethical aspects of brain banking. This legislation protects our donors’ tissue – it dictates how we look after it properly, carefully and respectfully.
My PhD was on the renin-angiotensin system and dementia. This system controls our body’s blood pressure, among other things. The brain has an entirely separate renin-angiotensin system and I compared components of the system in the brain tissue of people with and without Alzheimer’s disease. We know that high blood pressure in mid-life can be a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and that some medications for blood pressure can lower the risk or improve outcomes for people with dementia. The joint head of our group is now leading on a trial to test whether a particular blood pressure drug can slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
In my 11 years I’ve dealt with over 300 potential donors and their families. I have huge respect and admiration for people who decide to donate their brains. Every donation here is a person to us – it’s our job to make sure his or her brain can be used for research and that the tissue is treated with respect.
My favourite part of my job is writing to families to let them know the diagnosis of their loved one. Each brain must receive a diagnosis before it can be used for research, and we try to write to families within 3-6 months. I feel that a definitive diagnosis can help families to move forward after the death of a loved one.
More and more so we’re finding that the most useful donations are from people for whom we have lots of clinical data. A brain is much more useful if we know a lot about the health and lifestyle of the person it belonged to. We’re involved with the Brains for Dementia Research project, which involves registering people for brain donation and following them up with regular home visits for memory assessments. This allows us to collect in-depth clinical information that we can provide to researchers along with tissue after the donors pass way.
The most difficult thing about my job is when I have to refuse a donation. This might be because of an infectious disease or a brain tumour. Also, when a brain donor dies we have 72 hours in which to coordinate, receive and process that tissue – sometimes this just isn’t possible within the timeframe.
We send tissue samples anywhere in the world: Canada, Sweden, Australia… though the majority of our requests come from the UK. We courier all of our tissue either frozen on dry ice or on microscope slides at room temperature. We processed about 32 requests last year – some as small as four samples and some as large as 1,000.
We recently received our 1000th brain donation – a massive milestone for us. I had the great honour of being asked by the donor’s widow to write something to be read at his funeral. It was really special to find out just how important donating his brain was to him.
People are always fascinated by my job. A lot of people don’t realise that facilities like this exist. Reactions differ greatly and the decision to donate is a very personal one. The brain is a very emotive organ – for some people it holds all their memories; for others, when they die their body is simply a shell.
People are often quite confused by the difference between brain and organ donation. A lot of people think that because they’re registered for organ donation that brain donation is included. But there’s a big difference between donation for transplant and donation for research. Donation for research requires a different form of consent – similar to full body donation for medical teaching.
I feel very closely attached to the brains and the bank as a whole. I very much hope the bank will be a part of my career going forward. I want to be here dealing with these wonderful people, making a difference in my own small way and seeing the bank go from strength to strength.
As told to Katherine Nightingale.
Watch our video about what happens to a donated brain.
Find out more about brain banking on our website.