Visiting a Brain Bank

20 February 2014

Interview with

Malvinder Singh-Bains, Auckland University

How a bank of frozen human brains is acting as a reference library, how a Hindu resolves conflicting religious and scientific beliefs.

In this show, we continue our quest, but this time, finding out New Zealanders are using a last quadruple approach to tackling Huntington's by looking at the human brain.  We'll discover how a bank of frozen human brains is acting as a reference library and how scientists are creating human brain circuits in a dish in order to piece together the jigsaw of the disease.  First up though, Professor Richard Faull and Dr. Maurice Curtis from Auckland University have set up a back of frozen human brains.  This contains hundreds of brains from Huntington's disease patients and also, healthy controls from the general population.  Their PhD student Malvinder Singh-Bains discussed her personal belief dilemmas with the project.  She's been raised a practicing Hindu, a religion with strict funeral rituals.  After death, Hindu bodies are cremated traditionally near a river, for example The Ganges and this cremation is important for transmigration of the soul from one body to another for reincarnation.  Before this though, she took me on a tour of the research facilities.

Malvinder -   Okay, now we're going to go into the Neurological Foundation of New A chimpanzee brain at the Science Museum LondonZealand Human Brain Bank.  Long title but we call it the Human Brain Bank over here.  If you just walk this way, and we have all our brain freezers isolated in rooms, no gloves on doors, so just through the door.

Hannah -   We've entered into the brain bank room.  So, it's got a massive freezer in here which is humming away.  You might be able to hear it and there's also a fume cupboard over there where I'm presuming some dissection can take place into very clean conditions.  Can you open up the brain bank and show us some of the samples?

Malvinder -   I can, indeed.

Hannah -   And the freezer is open up now and it's minus 80 degrees centigrade.  So, it's keeping the brains in a very cold condition to preserve the tissue and all the proteins and the genes that are there.

Malvinder -   Absolutely and we have a few of these freezers.  So, we have the tissue stored and these columns that are kept in the minus 80 freezer and they're all designated with a number and they all code it specifically.  We don't know who these cases belong to for security purposes and also for patient confidentiality.  The tissue is kept in these biohazard bags.  I just open up one of them.  So here, we have one tissue block.  We've designated it a case of H131.  So, in this case, I picked out a normal one and we've also got the block number on it.  So, SM4 stands for sensory motor block 4.

Hannah -   So, that's sensory motor cortex.  That's the band of your brain which runs kind of from ear to ear.  If you imagine having a hair band or an Alice band, that's roughly about where the sensory motor cortex would be.  The sensory motor cortex is involved in processing all of the sensory information that comes in through our bodies.  So for example, sense of touch, sense of temperature and sense of self as well I think.

Malvinder -   Absolutely.  Sensory motor cortex is probably one of the most important cortical regions.

Hannah -   So, can we open the sample without jeopardizing the integrity of the tissue, but open it and just have a quick look?

Malvinder -   Absolutely.  So, we have each of our blocks that are wrapped in foil.  So, we snap freeze them using dry ice.  I think this one has a few layers on it.

Hannah -   We're unravelling now the block of human brain tissue.

Malvinder -   So, this is a fresh piece of tissue and you can actually see the gyri.

Hannah -   We can see, yeah.  So, the human brain has these folds in it which almost make it look like a walnut and I can see now all of the gyri.  So, there's like little folds coming into the brain which almost look like - I don't know - like a river that's flowing into the brain with little bits of blood which - that's how the brain gets its blood supply and the oxygen rushing to it and I can see that really intricate details are in this frozen block of tissue.  It's quite awe-inspiring actually.

Malvinder -   It's very real.  When you see the brain this way, you'll know that this is such a precious gift from a person.  You can even see the little tiny vessels on the top of the meninges.  If you look very carefully, you can see little capillaries.

Hannah -   And that's how the brain gets its oxygen through these little capillaries.  It's through these vasculature which lies on almost the surface of the brain.

Malvinder -   You can even see the separation between the grey and white matter.  The grey matter contains all the bodies of the cells of the neurons and then the white matter contains all their processes.  So, all the connections come through the white matter here and it's just very distinct.  We haven't even stained the tissue.  You can get so much information just from one block.

Hannah -   It's beautiful, thank you.  A quick question, would you donate your brain for medical research for this type of study?

Malvinder -   Absolutely.  I think the care that we take into the processing of every single block of tissue and just the brain as a whole, we treat these brains like as if it was our grandparents or our parents and I would certainly donate my brain with the knowledge of how well we treat the tissue here.  With the Indian culture, certain different cultural groups amongst Indians, the Indian population, we have beliefs that the blood of our body is sacred and our organs are sacred, that the tissue is sacred.  This is why when a person passes away, we practice the art of cremating so in other words, giving everything back to the earthy, so sending our ashes into the ocean and then passing on to the other side.  So, the sensitive topic tissue donation i.e. leaving a part of yourself on Earth is very, very different for Indians.  So for me, I've actually had an internal cultural battle as well.  I actually wasn't allowed to donate blood at a point.  And now...

Hannah -   Because of your family's wishes.

Malvinder -   Yes, because of the cultural commitments and also, the family understanding that blood is sacred.  I brought my parents to the centre and showing them firsthand what we do and also, my parents can see how precious the information is, it's as almost as if that knowledge has armed them with the understanding that we can actually learn so much from what we have.

Hannah -   Thanks, Malvinder. 

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