The region’s first brain bank and what it brings to dementia research

Posted on: Friday, May 29th, 2020

As part of National Brain Awareness Month, Kevin Bieniek, Ph.D., director of the Brain Bank at the Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases, answers questions about what the region’s first brain bank means for dementia research.

Q: You are the director of the Brain Bank at the Biggs Institute. What inspired you to study the human brain?  

Dr. Bieniek: For me it was being able to connect the dots between patients I met in memory care facilities and neurology practices and looking at the research on how these complex diseases worked.
It was answers for both worlds- validation the science in the lab was really happening in the brain and that these terrible disease symptoms happening to amazing people with incredible life stories were rooted in an observable, measurable pathology.

Q: Why start a brain bank? 

Dr. Bieniek: The brain bank is an important resource to the Biggs Institute and UT Health San Antonio. It provides families with answers to what caused debilitating neurological conditions in their loved ones (dementia, movement disorder, neuromuscular disorder, etc.) as well as provide innovative researchers with human tissue samples that are critical to understanding and unlocking treatments and cures to these diseases.

Q: Are there things that can only be learned through brain donation?  

Dr. Bieniek: Yes! While clinical diagnostic capabilities are getting better (through imaging, biofluid diagnostics and genetics), neuropathology still stands as the gold standard for accurately calling the underlying disease. In some cases, it’s the only way.
Neuropathology is “reverse engineering” at its finest: helping to untangle complex disease with multiple co-occurring pathologies and molecular dysfunction.  It can help family members understand why the donor behaved or experienced disorder they had, and even sometimes, the risk other relatives might face, giving insight into preventative measures that could be taken.

Q: What does a brain donation do for research? 

Dr. Bieniek: DNA from brain donations can lead to the identification of new gene mutations or disease-relevant variations.  Archived tissue can validate a researcher who developed a new model/system/approach to studying a human disease.  Specially sampled and preserved tissue from the brain can turn to stem cells, studying a disease in viable cells in a culture dish.  There are many different uses and techniques stemming from brain donations that absolutely benefit disease diagnostics, prognostics and therapeutics.

Q: Why should someone consider becoming a donor? 

Dr. Bieniek: Brain donation is a selfless gift.  It can be solace for a grieving family and hope for future unknown strangers that may have one day experienced a similar disease.
Brain donors do not fit in one box or have one specific profile- donation comes from people of all walks of life.  This richness is key to understanding disease diversity.  Even studying people that did not experience a neurological disorder allows us to further understand resilience and protective features against these diseases.
Donation is a process that is as unobtrusive as possible, does not interfere with memorial arrangements and is a lasting legacy with immeasurable value.



When a person donates, they are helping find better ways to diagnose and treat millions of people living with dementia. Learn more about tissue donation >>

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