10/17/2014 05:57 EDT | Updated 12/17/2014 05:59 EST

Alzheimer's researchers turn to Halifax brain bank

When scientists worldwide need donated human brains for their research on Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases, many turn to a small laboratory in Halifax.

The Maritime Brain Tissue Bank at Dalhousie University is one of a handful of Canadian brain banks where students learn about the visible impact of Alzheimer's disease on brain structure. Within the folds of the brain, researchers hope to find the secrets of degenerative and debilitating diseases of the vital organ.

The federal government is funding a Canadian consortium of scientists focused on Alzheimer's research, but they need brains to research and donated brains are in short supply.

Researchers from Israel, Africa, Denmark and other cities in Canada have already tapped into the Halifax bank, which readily shares its information and resources.

"We realized that the most important thing is yes, we will use brain tissues for ourselves, but I think there has to be a smart person in the world who's going to find the cause and cure for Alzheimer's disease so we are open to everybody," Dr. Sultan Darvesh, the brain bank's director said of the philosophy.

"This allows us to participate on the international stage on dementia research."

Darvesh aims to increase brain donations and samples for a network of six brain banks. He said access to human brains is critical to gain knowledge about the disease, as there are no animal models of Alzheimer's or other neurological diseases for researchers to study.

Dr. Alon Friedman, an epilepsy researcher who studies how blood vessels in the brain affect brain diseases, was recently recruited to Dalhousie Medical School from Israel's Ben Gurion University.

'Damnable disease'

He said part of the attraction for him was the access to the brain bank and the ability to use human brain samples to cross reference with brain scans done while patients are still alive.

"We have lots of sophisticated methods to image the brain while we're alive, but actually we don't really know what's happening in the brain," Friedman said.

He described the ability to look at brain tissue under a microscope as "essential for our understanding of neurological disease."

Barbara Mulrooney's husband, Edward, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's at age 53. When he died 10 years later, an autopsy confirmed the diagnosis.

When his mind was still clear, he decided to give his brain to science. Mulrooney recalled her husband saying if he had to have this "damnable disease," then he wanted other people to be helped by the donation.

The funding for the brain bank network, which was announced last month by federal Health Minister Rona Ambrose, comes in part from the Canadian Consortium on Neurodegeneration in Aging based at McGill University.

The $55-million research effort will involve 340 Canadian researchers who are part of 20 teams studying dementia. It's a nod to the aging population and an attempt to prepare for an anticipated avalanche of dementia and Alzheimer's cases. 

All the money raised this year by the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation's Molly Appeal in the Maritimes will support an expansion of the Maritime brain bank.

It is estimated that 1.4 million Canadians will have dementia by 2031, according to the Alzheimer Society of Canada. That is double the current number of people afflicted with the disease.