The Netherlands Brain Bank (NBB) was founded more than 30 years ago, in 1985, by brain researcher Dick Swaab. “Why? Because while imaging techniques boost our knowledge of the brain, they are not an alternative for research of human brain tissue”. Says Inge Huitinga, medical biologist and immunologist, and director of the NBB.
“Animal experimental work and MRI-scanning are wonderful, but do not definitively answer the question how brain disorders originate in humans,” says Huitinga. This requires the brains of people who actually suffered from these disorders, not those of animals with comparable symptoms. “Whatever findings animal research yields, will always have to be validated in humans. MRI makes changes in the brain visible, but does not show what that means on the molecular level.”
The NBB is unique in the world for two reasons.
1. No other brain bank has a team ready to do brain autopsies 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.
2. The average time between the demise of a brain donor and the removal of the brain is only 6 hours. That means the tissue is still fresh when it is removed. “We do not keep this tissue for ourselves, it finds its way to top researchers all over the world,’ says Huitinga. “We owe light therapy and cholinesterase inhibitors, used as a therapy for Alzheimer’s disease, to research on human brain tissue. Our brain donors enable us to unravel brain disorders bit by bit, which will lead to the development of treatments for these disorders. This would otherwise be impossible.”
The success of the NBB therefore depends on a sufficient number of brain donors: people who donate their brain for scientific research after they have passed away. This research needs diseased and healthy brains. Healthy brains are important because researchers must be able to compare their findings with non-diseased brain tissue. Diseased brains are required if researchers are to find what goes wrong in the brain of someone with a neurological disorder such as Parkinson, Huntington, Alzheimer or MS.
The NBB is also interested in collecting brain tissue for research of psychiatric disorders. This is why NBB-Psy was set up, as a bank for brain tissue of people who suffered from schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, autism, ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder, or PTSS (posttraumatic stress disorder). This is a type of research that is extra complicated, because the brain anomalies in psychiatric disorders are far more subtle than those in neurological disorders. People with a neurological or psychiatric disorder who wish to leave their brain to the NBB must always provide an official medical diagnosis.