Behind-the-scenes peek at brain research

July 8, 2008

By hammersmith

[Source: Erin Zlomek, The Arizona Republic] – Chunks of human brain tissue, the telltale grooves still visible, soak in 1,000 formaldehyde-filled plastic tubs in a closet at Sun City’s Sun Health Research Institute. Next door, researchers poke paper-thin neck arteries with special instruments.

All are on display for anyone curious to peek. But it’s worth noting that at some point, the ones peeking usually become the pokers and brain donors.

“More than 80 percent of (our visitors) are engaged in science enough that they want to contribute more, in whatever way, whether it be volunteering time or becoming involved in a clinical trial,” institute spokesman Brian Browne said.

Those curious observers are partly responsible for the center’s blockbuster 2007-08 year. The non-profit, which specializes in Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, arthritis and dementia research, finished a $5.5 million building expansion in April 2007.

The new digs allowed the institute to more than double its annual visitor capacity from about 545 in 2006-07 to 1,225 in 2007-08.

Because many visitors form relationships with the institute thereafter, this year’s larger tour groups fast became a vehicle for bringing in contributions and fueling growth. The 90-minute guided visits are free, held the first Tuesday of each month. Tours require a reservation.

Once the new wing opened and larger tours started at 10515 W. Santa Fe Drive, monetary and body donations spiked nearly 50 percent.

The facility can now accommodate groups from six local high schools, compared with just two in the past. This has led to the addition of nine student interns.

Volunteerism peaked, too. The facility landed a handful of new volunteers, bringing its roster to about 20. Though the volunteer pool is modest, Browne said each must have highly specialized skills (many are retired nurses and physicians), making any new addition a major accomplishment.

The institute’s volunteer program was recently profiled by a Chinese government television station for a piece about recruiting skilled volunteers to work at the coming Beijing Olympic Games.

Browne also credits the increased interest to attention brought to Alzheimer’s disease this year.

In June, Alzheimer’s surpassed diabetes as the sixth leading cause of death in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That hits home in Arizona, where many retirees and seniors live.

Within a 10-mile radius of the institute, more than 8,000 people are living with the disease in Surprise, Sun City, Sun City West and Youngtown, said Deborah Schaus, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association Desert Southwest Chapter.

Still, not all guests who pass through the institute’s doors are science aficionados, and some are uneasy when it comes to donating remains.

Sun City resident Ty Dale said that donating was a challenging decision when his family had medical power of attorney for his mother.

Dale’s mother, Mary Elizabeth Dale, died of Alzheimer’s in February. She was 78.

“Immediately after her death, they did the autopsy and harvested – though I hate that word – her brain,” Dale said. “Mom was more than just a number. But who knows, it could benefit her grandkids one day if this disease turns out to be hereditary. I’ll feel closure someday if something good comes from it.”