Thousands of brains taken for research

Thousands of brains taken for research

Jill Lawless


LONDON _ The brains of at least 20,000 people, many of them depressed or mentally ill when they died, were removed without their families’ consent over a 30-year period, a government doctor reported Monday.

Some brains were removed to help diagnose cause of death, while others were collected for neuropsychiatric research, Dr. Jeremy Metters, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Anatomy, said in a report that followed an 18-month investigation.

In one case, a hospital mortician was paid $16 for each brain he provided for research. In another, more than 200 brains were kept for a Manchester University research project that studied the brains of people who had suffered from mental illness and those of healthy “controls” for comparison.

Removing organs without families’ permission was explicitly outlawed in 1999. A law passed in 1961 said organs should only be taken from corpses if relatives did not object, but Metters said permission often was not sought.

Metters said many of those involved in retaining organs didn’t know they were breaking the law.

“There was a widespread belief that organ and tissue retention was in the ‘public interest’ and that retention was lawful because the postmortem was carried out for the coroner,” he wrote.

The 20,000 figure may be far lower than the actual number of brains taken. It includes only brains still held by hospitals and universities in England, and Metters said many more could have been examined and destroyed.

The government ordered the investigation after a woman learned her husband’s brain had been removed without her permission when he committed suicide in 1987. The couple’s Jewish faith decrees a person must be buried intact.

Elaine Isaacs said the secrecy surrounding the case of her husband, Cyril, was “nothing short of collusion,” and she expected authorities to take action against those responsible.

The government’s chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, said removing organs or tissues at postmortem examination without lawful authority “is an affront to families who have lost a loved one.”

Metters made 34 recommendations, including greater openness by those involved in postmortems. He said public confidence for the lawful removal of organs and study of tissue must be restored.

Copyright Copley Press Inc. 2003

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