There's always a funny little pause when people talk about death. Somewhere in between the quaint chat about pushing up daisies, the tedious legalese and the fond memories, a little silence crops up. Like a familiar inherited bureau, filled with hearing aid batteries and old receipts, it sits unopened for a while.
Which is why talking about donating one's brain to science doesn't always crop up at dinner parties. But the fact is, along with the heirlooms worth more in sentiment than cash, the ill-fitting coats and outdated catchphrases, I want to leave behind something else. Namely, the fleshy organ inside my head.
Despite it being an unlikely conversation topic, most people have opinions on how they want their body to be treated after they die. There are religious commitments and philosophical beliefs to be considered, bundled up with environmental pragmatism and cultural musings. But as far as I'm concerned, once my body has decided it has had enough, it's not really mine to own or control any more. Therefore, allowing professional scientists and researchers to use it how they like for the advance of medical science makes perfect sense to me.
The topic could be seen as rather in vogue at the moment. Recently, the story of the wonderfully fit Nicholas Crace made the news by being the oldest living kidney donor at 83. Earlier this year, Louis Theroux made a heartbreaking documentary into the lives and loved ones of Alzheimer's patients. The news that health and social care for dementia patients is just not up to scratch keeps breaking time and time again. But with an ageing population, the number of people suffering in old age from incurable brain conditions is only going to increase.
Currently, dementia affects 820,000 people in the UK, and some 25million people who are close friends or family of that sufferer. If you are fortunate enough not to have experienced a relative or friend slowing losing their memory or the knowledge of who you are, then maybe the fact that the disease costs the UK economy more than heart disease and cancer combined - a whopping £23 billion, might hit home. Around 50% of that figure is the cost of unpaid carers, often family and friends. There isn't, at the moment, a cure.
The charity Parkinson's UK has a clearly outlined research strategy to help cure the progressive neurological condition, that slowly impacts people's lives with symptoms like tremors, depression and tiredness. They have a brain bank, which collects brain tissue from sufferers and non-sufferers of Parkinson's to try and work out how the organ works, what goes wrong, and try to find a way to fix it. One donated brain can be used in up to 50 different scientific studies.
It's difficult to argue with the worth of such a cause - the ways in which lives are blighted by the conditions are numerous and often beyond statistics. I recommend reading this moving piece by Nicola Clark for some insight into what caring for a sufferer is like. However, as the Society for Neuroscientists will freely admit , we don't know much about the throbbing grey muscle which conjures thought, emotion, and an ability to do sudoku puzzles.
I recently visited the Brains: The mind as matter exhibition at London's Wellcome Collection, the location of a number of fascinating medical and scientific objects. Surrounded by brain-related paraphernalia - some of which dated back to Henry VIII, who allowed contemporary surgeons to perform scientific autopsies on four lucky criminals per year - I realised that we're still a long way from working out what makes us tick.
The work of sound designer Gaetano Serra was most poignant - here you could listen to the motivations and stories of brain donors. A from Peckham, who was in his 80s and who had cared for his dementia-suffering wife, told of how he was excited for humankind's further exploration of space. These people knew that when they died, they were shaping others' futures by contributing their dead grey matter. Which is, when you think about it, pretty cool.
For me, it's the words of Nicholas Crace which most ring true: "It's nice to feel in old age that one can still be useful." Old age might not even come into it - I may get knocked off my bike tomorrow - but either way, at least I'll know I'm being useful by donating my brain to science.
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