A picture of two brain scans, one with Parkinson's, one without Parkinson's.

Brain Tissue Resource Facility

The Facility

The Brain Tissue Resource Facility (BTRF) at Virginia Commonwealth University is an integral part of the VCU Parkinson's and Movement Disorders Center. Established in 2010, the BTRF is dedicated to assisting families of patients with neurodegenerative diseases in exploring the possibility of an autopsy and human brain tissue donation for research. Discoveries made possible by donated tissue further the understanding of normal and abnormal workings of the human brain. New information about Parkinson's disease and other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, mark the critical first step in the creation of novel, targeted therapies for fighting these diseases.

Years of concentrated effort by the scientific community have made it clear that experiments using cell and animal models to mimic human neurodegenerative diseases do not paint the whole picture of the disease process and have not led to effective therapies. The use of human tissue to validate results obtained from other lines of research is critical to the accurate and efficient advancement of scientific knowledge about these diseases.

By bringing together the efforts of professionals from different disciplines within the VCU community, the BTRF makes it possible for families to gain the information needed about the autopsy procedure. If brain tissue is donated, it is with the knowledge that this delicate tissue will be handled with the utmost care and precision in facilities with the latest in scientific technology.

a picture of neurons under a microscope

Cultured human neurons imaged using the Center's confocal microscope. Blue structures are nuclei with two complexes of the electron transport chain highlighted in red and green. Located in the inner membrane of mitochondria, the ETC is essential for making ATP, the form of chemical energy most efficiently used by cells.

The Process

Human brains used for research purposes are obtained during an autopsy or postmortem examination. Ideally, an autopsy takes place soon after a patient has passed away. The procedure is very similar to exploratory surgery. An autopsy allows the pathologist to confirm diagnoses, assess how effective treatments were and to look for any undetected conditions. Tissue samples are taken for further, detailed analysis. If the family has requested tissue donation and research criteria have been met, brain tissue for donation is also removed at this time. If the family is interested only in diagnosis of a brain disease and donation of brain tissue, a "brain only" autopsy can be performed. This is a more limited procedure than a full autopsy.

Immediately following an autopsy, the body of the loved one is returned to the family for the funeral arrangements of their choice. An autopsy does not interfere with an open casket funeral or other traditional funeral arrangements. Transportation charges for the body to and from VCU Medical Center and the postmortem examination are covered for clients of the VCU Parkinson's and Movement Disorders Center. Funeral expenses remain the responsibility of the family.

A report of the autopsy findings will be sent to the next of kin or the client's personal physician. This information may help the family better understand the client's illness and could aid in the diagnosis and treatment of related family members. In cases where a definite diagnosis is only possible by postmortem examination of the brain, confirmation of the diagnosis adds valuable statistical data to what is known about how often the disease occurs.

The Family's Role

Data on the normal aging brain is essential to understanding neurodegenerative diseases.  For this reason, individuals without nervous system diseases will also be considered for tissue donation to the BTRF.

The client's family plays a key role in the final decision of whether or not to obtain an autopsy and donate tissue. Although the deceased may have wanted to donate her or his brain, the next of kin must give consent for the autopsy and brain donation to take place. This makes it very important that families and, if possible, the client discuss and preplan the decision for an autopsy. BTRF staff is available to provide support and any information requested.

If the decision is made to obtain an autopsy, the next step is to register for the program by contacting the BTRF Coordinator to initiate the registration process. An information packet and instructions will be sent. An autopsy will not be performed unless a valid consent is signed by the next of kin and a witness. Consent for an autopsy and/or tissue donation may be withdrawn at any time.


For questions or if you are interested in learning more about becoming a brain tissue donor, please e-mail us at brain.bank@vcuhealth.org or call Dr. Ben Churn at 804-828-9664. You can also visit https://rampages.us/brainbank/.


Peer-reviewed scientific papers published by members of the VCU Parkinson's and Movement Disorders Center made possible by the availability of donated human brain tissue:

Keeney, PM & Bennett, JP (2010). ALS spinal neurons show varied and reduced mtDNA gene copy numbers and increased mtDNA gene deletions. Molecular Neurodegeneration, 5, 21.

Miller, B & Bennett, JP (2010). The locus ceruleus contains mitochondrial DNA deletions in Alzheimer's disease. Abstracts/Mitochondrion, 10, 200-242.

Arthur, CR, Morton, SL, Dunham, LD, et al. (2009). Parkinson's disease brain mitochondria have impaired respirasome assembly, age-related increases in distribution of oxidative damage to mtDNA and no differences in heteroplasmic mtDNA mutation abundance. Molecular Neurodegeneration, 4, 37.

Borland, MK, Mohanakumar, KP, Rubenstein, JD, et al. (2009). Relationships among molecular genetic and respiratory properties of Parkinson's disease cybrid cells show similarities to Parkinson's brain tissues. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, 1792(1), 68-74.

Keeney, PM, Xie, J, Capaldi, RA, & Bennett, JP (2006). Parkinson's disease brain mitochondrial complex I has oxidatively damaged subunits and is functionally impaired and misassembled. The Journal of Neuroscience, 26(19), 5256-526.