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How a group of Arizona retirement communities are advancing brain science

An interesting article in this month's issue of Discover spotlights the brain donation program at the Banner Sun Health Research Institute and discusses how donors have notably advanced neuroscience research.

The program has collected more than a thousand brains from residents who lived in three retirement communities around Phoenix, Ariz. Participants enroll in the program prospectively, allowing for standardized clinical assessments to be made while they are still living. Jeff Wheelwright writes:

A large base of well-
documented donors in close proximity sets the Sun City program apart from other repositories, which often have scant information about patients who may be scattered and diverse. Here, healthy, active seniors who eventually die of, say, heart disease, can be compared with others who develop neurodegenerative disorders. Because the two sets of subjects have similar backgrounds, lifestyles, and ethnic traits, changes relating to a brain disease should be easier to detect.


The brain bank has provided raw material to 110 investigators and several hundred studies over the past five years. Asked to name the most important use of the samples so far, [pathologist and program director Thomas Beach, MD, PhD,] thinks for a moment and then describes an ambitious gene-expression study, “the first thorough study of gene expression of individually selected nerve cells in several regions of the Alzheimer’s brain.” And, he adds, “it’s publicly available.” Another project enabled the first FDA-approved imaging agent that could be used in PET scans of Alzheimer’s patients who were still alive.

Previously: Finding hope for rare pediatric brain tumor
Photo by Heidi Cartwright, Wellcome Images

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