Florida brain bank strives to uncover mysteries of the mind

Researchers look for clues to diagnose, treat forms of dementia

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – While it may sound bizarre, the Florida Brain Bank is working with donated brains to break through the mysteries of the mind.

From mad scientists to creepy creatures, harvesting brains has been part of spine-tingling storylines.

But in the laboratory at the University of Florida in Gainesville, modern-day research involving real human brains is not frightening, it's fascinating.

"The idea is that these brains will be used for researchers who study neurodegenerative diseases," Dr. Anthony Yachnis said.

The specimens donated to the Florida Brain Bank are stored in a formaldehyde-type fluid to preserve them for pathologists to study.

"Literally, I'm surrounded by them," Yachnis said. "There's brains on the walls, on shelves, about 115 (to) 120 in this room, physically."

One of the brains came from Arlene Lakin's late husband, Cliff, who died last year from a form of dementia.

"I wanted to do it for everyone else, for me and you and the rest of us out there who are susceptible to developing some type of dementia," Lakin said. "They need the brains to do the research."

But brain donation doesn't just happen by checking the organ donor option on your drivers license. It's more complicated than that.

Mt. Sinai Medical Center neurologist Dr. Ranjan Duara said the necessary consents and medical records take time to collect.

"Typically, it's months or a couple of years before the individual passes away," Duara said. "We sometimes get calls right before they are about to die. It makes it a little difficult for us to put everything into place, but we do it."

Family members are reassured that removing the brain does not distort the donor's facial features.

"When the individual passes away, .... what you need to do is, kind of, freeze the skull to keep the brain from atrophying quicker and quicker," Lakin said.

Researchers at the Brain Bank can then identify the exact cause of death.

"More and more, we're seeing that families really want to know what was going on in the brain of their loved one," Yachnis said.

"And as we go along, we could learn how to manipulate genes a little bit. We may be able to prevent the next generation from getting the disease," Duara said. "I mean, it sounds 'science-fiction-y' right now, but it's potentially something that could be done."

The work at the Brain Bank could ultimately lead to treatments to prevent or even reverse various forms of dementia.