For Byron Yoder, it’s a no-brainer. "If there’s a good part in anybody’s body who passes away, I think we ought to be able to use it," the Scottsdale man said.
Yoder, 86, participates in the Valley’s brain donation program, run by the Mayo Clinic Scottsdale and the Sun Health Research Institute in Sun City.
The program requires donors to come in for two tests annually as the researchers look for signs of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
After the donor dies, scientists will harvest the brain, cut it into slices and quick-freeze it. The scientists are on call 24 hours a day to perform autopsies quickly — usually within two to three hours after death.
Yoder doesn’t get paid to be a guinea pig, but said it’s worth it.
"Hopefully we’ll get some information that’s going to lead us to solving this problem," he said of the diseases, both of which are incurable.
The brain donor program has had about 2,300 people sign up since it started in 1986, and the researchers are always looking for more donors, preferably 65 or older.
Though the researchers are studying Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, they also need participants with normal brain function to serve as a control group.
In many cases, doctors are not completely sure whether a patient has those diseases, as about 25 percent of neurological problems are misdiagnosed, said Dr. Tom Beach, head of Civin Laboratory for Neuropathology at the Sun Health Research Institute.
The only way to know is to study the brain after death, which doesn’t tell doctors everything about the brain’s function during life.
"The chemistry changes after they die," Beach said. "We are studying the chemistry of life, not the chemistry of death."
Participants are tested mentally and physically.
The neurological test may show signs of Alzheimer’s disease, a brain disorder that gradually ruins a person’s memory and ability to judge and reason.
For example, donors often are asked to remember three unrelated words, such as "ball," "star" and "apple." If they can’t remember any of the words five to 10 minutes later, there is a high probability of Alzheimer’s, Beach said.
The motor skills test may show signs of Parkinson’s disease, which occurs when certain cells in the brain begin to malfunction and die.
The cells produce the chemical dopamine, which helps control movement and coordination.
Participants are given a number of tests, such as writing, walking or tapping a finger for 60 seconds. Many people with early Parkinson’s disease develop a visible tremor or shake, Beach said.
Yoder has been in the brain donation program for a few years, but also has taken it a step further: Full-body donation. After he dies, his body will be donated to scientific research.
With the full-body donation program, the research institute pays for a funeral service and the cost to cremate whatever they don’t use, Beach said.
Yoder said he thinks everybody should sign up to donate their bodies.
"You’re not using it anymore, so why not?"
For more information about the brain or full-body donation programs, call Linda Vedders at Sun Health Research Institute, (623) 875-6503 or Charles Adler at Mayo Clinic, (480) 301-4626.