While many people carry a donor card that says science can use their heart or kidney after they die, few of them have apparently thought about donating their brains. But now the British Parkinson's Disease Society is asking people to do exactly that in their nationwide Parkinson's Brain Donor Appeal.
British celebrities like the BBC's "Newsnight" television host Jeremy Paxman and actress Jane Asher have agreed to donate their brains to the largest Parkinson's brain bank in the world. Asher, who is also the president of the London-based Parkinson's Disease Society, said she was moved to do so after her brother-in-law was diagnosed with Parkinson's.
"Now we need a greater awareness of the benefits of brain donation so that more people come forward to register with us," Asher said in a statement. "Scientific research on brains both with and without Parkinson's is essential. It's vital that we secure more potential [brain] donors as this will help us move closer to a cure for what can be a debilitating and distressing condition."
In the United Kingdom, one in 500 Brits, or about 120,000, live with Parkinson's. About 10,000 people are diagnosed every year with the degenerative condition, of which about 500 are under the age of 40. In the United States, with a population five times greater than the U.K.'s, researchers estimate that about 1 million people live with the condition. There is no cure for Parkinson's.
"Hard to imagine anyone might want your old brain, isn't it? But it's not as if you'll be needing it yourself," Paxman said in a statement.
The television presenter is also the host of the quiz show "University Challenge," in which university students compete to be the brainiest.
The Parkinson's Disease Society is urging those in the U.K. with and without Parkinson's to pledge to donate their brains to their brain bank at London's Hammersmith Hospital, where there's a "desperate shortage." The Brain Donor Register already has about 1,000 people signed up but hopes to double that number by the end of this year and conduct research to aid the development of anti-Parkinsons's drugs, maybe even finding a cure.
Research with donated brain tissue has led to major medical breakthroughs in the treatment and understanding of Parkinson's, according to the Parkinson's Disease Society. Still, many people seem to flinch when it comes to donating their brains, as opposed to hearts, kidneys or eyes. "I think it has mostly to do with people associating the brain with one's personality", Steve Ford, chief executive of the Parkinson's Disease Society, told ABC News.
"Although we don't do electric experiments on the brain and don't transplant it to a living person, people are still reserved about donating their brains. But what we do is really just cut up the brain in many small pieces and do research on the brain tissue."
But even the chief executive of the Parkinson's Disease Society has to admit that he had a long talk with his family when he signed up for brain donation.
Most people in the U.K. -- 63 percent -- don't have a problem with heart donation, according to new research commissioned by the society. But only 7 percent of adults are comfortable with the idea of brain donation, with almost a quarter worried about causing distress to their families, even though the survey showed that one in three Brits know someone affected by Parkinson's.
Still, as more high-profile personalities agree to donate their brains for research, some hold out hope that the tide will turn. In the United States last year, for instance, former NFL linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski and 15 other professional athletes volunteered to donate their brains for research into concussions.