Mark Crysell: Why I've decided to donate my brain to science

Tue, Feb 21
Sunday's Mark Crysell

I’m not someone who believes in an after-life.

By Sunday's Mark Crysell

You get one shot, drink it while it’s fizzy, make the most of it - that’s me.

We live on through our children, but, wouldn’t it be great if somehow, we could do something to help others after we’ve shuffled off our mortal coils?

Now, I’m very lucky with my job as a reporter on the Sunday programme that I get to meet and ask questions of some of the smartest and most extraordinary people.

My recent story on Justin Jennings, the first New Zealand rugby player to be diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), left me thinking.

I’ve decided to leave my brain to science.

And I couldn’t wait to tell Professor Maurice Curtis at the University of Auckland’s Neurological Foundation’s Human Brain Bank.

“Yes, but not too soon,” he said. “Hang on to it as long as you can. Keep it in good condition.”

Inside the Brain Bank’s fridges are 750 donated brains, all permanently chilled to minus 80 Celsius. “It's the most incredible gift,” said Professor Curtis.

“I'm a firm believer that space is no longer the final frontier, it's the brain that is the final frontier.”

Some of the research done here is leading to real breakthroughs and understanding of crippling brain diseases such as Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy and motor neurone disease.

The Brain Bank was founded in the 1990s by Sir Richard Faull who is like a proud dad when he tells me, “Quite humbly I would say we're the best brain bank in the world for Huntington's brains.”

Read more: Exclusive: First NZ rugby player diagnosed with CTE brain disease

What makes the New Zealand Brain Bank different to the ones in North America and Europe is the involvement of whānau.

"We can call the family anytime and say, listen, we found something interesting, we need more details, and they love to give us more details,” said Sir Richard.

But it’s not just the brains of the afflicted which Sir Richard and his fellow neuroscientists want to look at, “We also need brains from people who during life had no problems to see but have types of different types of personality and different aspects to their life.”

Normal brains in other words, a term many of my colleagues would struggle to attach to my own grey matter.

I’m 61, still reasonably active, I played rugby from 5 till 17 years old, then national league basketball into my early 20s and surfed all over the world.

I’ve also enjoyed the odd drink, lived in London during the Summer of Love and been to a few cafes in Amsterdam. I thought it was best I was upfront with Professor Curtis.

He’s still keen.

"The brain is the very essence of the person that it came from,” he tells me.

“It’s what allowed them to play sport, or to study or to be creative, all of those things to run their daily life. All of the things that made that their personality and humour. All of those things were encapsulated in this brain that we now have the opportunity to study.”

He had me at personality and humour.

I’m in.

There are forms to fill out and when I finally die, hopefully a few more years away yet, my brain will be harvested and brought here, preserved, stored, and studied.

And maybe, just maybe, what they find may help some other New Zealanders live a longer and happier life.

“I personally don't believe that there are such things as incurable diseases,” said Professor Curtis.

“We just haven't figured out how to cure them yet.”

How to donate your brain to the NZ Brain Bank

Chris Nowinski’s Concussion Legacy Foundation


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