“Donating your body to science” is a well-known but poorly understood concept, at least, according to my own experience in helping my own Mom accomplish her last wish. It is important to know there are a lot of options out there for donating but there is little, if anything, written about the process and true aftermath, both pro and con, of doing so.
Donating a body to science is a concept most of us are familiar with inasmuch as we have heard of it, but few of us would know how to go about actually doing it. Makes sense, really, as those who do end up leaving their body to science are not around to share their experiences. Meanwhile, the process is not something that is typically discussed by the living anecdotally at dinner parties.
I equate it to being struck by lightning. Many lightning strikes occur each year but no one really knows how many. Most of them are never reported. People who survive them are simply happy to be alive. They go on living their lives and generally no one else is aware anything ever happened.
Donating our bodies to science is not simply a matter of having a carcass dropped off at the nearest medical school. There are legal matters to attend to and, even if there were not, there is not much a typical lab can actually do with a human body unless they are in urgent need of an otherwise cumbersome and morbid paperweight. Donating our body to science is a complex and highly regulated process. There are many ways and levels of involvement one can endeavor to donate. For example, it is possible, to some extent, to let science use a body without being dead.
What follows is an informal guide on the levels of using our bodies for the good of science:
Entry Level – dipping toes in the body-donating pool
At the beginner’s level, it is possible to donate our bodies for research for a short period of time and also while we are still alive and walking around in them. Most all scientific research related to health and longevity requires human volunteers. By seeking out our nearest university with a psychology department, for example, we can find a great need for the study of somewhat normal, healthy people. Typically, this involvement requires only our physical presence to perform some trivial task or another. Such experiments are safe and easy. The risk involved is very low, especially as each initiative must first obtain ethical approval.
If you fancy something a bit more involved or “hi-tech”, the nearest neuroscience department has interesting offerings. You may, for example, have parts of the brain shut down by TMS and spend a long afternoon in an fMRI scanner. The possibilities are interesting wherever the brain is involved but, yes, at a somewhat greater degree of risk.
There are undoubtedly other methods and formats to volunteer for but, at the outset, these entry level types are a good way to donate our body without losing any of it, more or less.
Novice Level: Mid to long-term bodies for hire
More invasive experiments technically do not require we lose any part of our body, but our body is used more intensively. Drugs for example. Trials, whether by hospitals or pharmaceutical companies, are performed on animals before people well in advance of being released onto the market. We can volunteer our body to do this. I had a roommate years ago who augmented his income in this way. He was literally paid to allow testing of pre-FDA-approved drugs on his body on a regular basis. He made, as I recall, about $500 a week. I always thought he should renegotiate. The downside of suffering potentially negative side effects from putting an experimental compound in his body, with likely metabolic or physiological consequences that could be potentially quite damaging, seemed worth more than that to me.
On rare occasions drug trials go wrong and make the news. Have you ever heard someone say “They should not test these things until they can be absolutely sure they are safe.” A statement like this misses the point. Still, if we are willing to accept such risks (which are are more typically quite minor) then there are plenty of places to sign up for participcation in such trials.
Takeaway: entering the Novice Level may carry a financial reward but requires greater risk. We get to keep all our body but it most likely may be changed in some way.
Mid-Level: Partial donation (but temporary)
If we are hungry for the next level, willing to actually surrender some of our physical body for the good of science, well luckily there are ways to donate bits of oursleves to science that regenerate in time.
The most obvious and noble of these is donating blood. Everyone might consider doing this as a matter of course. I donate regularly and giving blood is an innocuous experience. It requires very little on the part of the giver yet can be the difference between life or death for the receiver. Please do consider doing it. It may not be scientific in the sense of research, but as most body donation goes into research towards saving lives, it is just cutting out the middleman and getting to the task of sustainability when someone is in dire straits. It is as old as the hills (as far as science goes) and simply works. It doesn’t hurt, either. Plus, we get snacks and juice and we feel like we deserve them for once.
From a certain perspective, we do get to see some decent science while we donate blood, too. Data collection is important as they need our medical histories and schwack like that. They also need to check our blood iron levels. I expected some high tech scanning device but, alas, they used the copper sulphate test, a brilliantly elegant and simple test whereby they put a drop of our blood into a tube of copper sulphate and wait to see how long it takes to sink. The more iron, the faster it sinks.
We can donate bodily tissues to science, too, which are more involved depending on what sort of tissue we donate. The blood donating thing is important, though, so do that first as a kicking-off point before advancing to the next level.
Advanced Level: Partial tissue or organ donation (this is permanent)
It is possible to donate one or many of our organs to science. Typically, this has to be done posthumously but we can also do it while still alive. One of our “spare” organs, for example, can be donated exclusively for use in transplants. If we wish to donate organs posthumously for transplant, then we can do so simply by joining the organ donor database. There is still the debate as to whether organ donation should be opt-in or opt-out. A tough debate, that one.
Should we wish to donate our organs to science, there are ways of doing this, particularly if we want to leave our brain to research. There are many people to contact if we wish to do this. I will stress, based on experiences I’ve had, that you shouldn’t try leaving your brain to the charities dedicated to fighting Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s etc. Charities are usually dedicated to funding research into the condition and raising awareness, they don’t actually have any use for the organs they focus on. Cancer research charities don’t actually want people’s tumors, it’s the same logic here. Please see the appropriate organisations in the link above should you opt for level 4 body donation.
Expert Level: Full Body Donation
This is what Mom chose to do, well ahead of when the time came. She was dedicated to donating her entire body to be used for scientific research and teaching. Always committed to learning, it is thanks to her I am not afraid to admit what I do not know and to ask questions, even ones that reveal my ignorance, in order not to miss a teachable moment. It’s how she operated. She knew most donations will be used for students to practice perfecting surgical techniques and procedures. If our remains are going to be dissected and studied by numerous young medical students or trainees, their safety is paramount. Ergo, we can’t donate our bodies if we succumbed to some rare and communicable virus or anything that doesn’t have a known cause. This means most terminal brain disorders exclude us.
For the sake of medical teaching, a human body also has to be as intact and as “normal” as possible, to reflect the majority of people a typical medic will encounter, so any particularly disfiguring illnesses (internally or externally) may also rule us out of donating. In a way, to successfully donate our body, we have to be in near-perfect health. Dead, but otherwise generally healthy.
She had already done her own research and had made up her mind. She knew, too, her mind was succumbing to Vascular Dementia, and knew the time she had to actively participate in such decisions was running out. I found out exactly how aware she was of this after she died. She had written letters saying goodbye to each of us, speaking directly as if sitting beside us, walking us through the process of her passing. Talk about planning. That woman loved us so much she planned everything in the most mindful and intentional way possible.
None of us could have known how her choice would affect us later on. As we began to get some time and distance from her death, it would be a source of comfort that she believed in the power of learning right through to the very end. At the moment, it may have meant simply beginning to prepare for her absence, and it was certainly frustrating to many family members. There would be no service, no funeral, no formal goodbye other than the ones we would have with her over the course of her decline as she meandered in and out of consciousness towards the end, sometimes aware of our presence, sometimes not. In time, however, we would come to discover that the aftermath of her decision was one of her greatest gifts.
The downsides to this kind of choice are obvious (and shocking especially to very religious people, which Mom actually was) but the upside is this: giving us prior knowledge of her wish meant we were able to do some of our own planning and learning in advance of her passing. In retrospect, it was a gift on so many levels. She gave us the gift of control, in the sense of learning about death in the empirical or scientific context, even as we knew the situation was completely out of our control. We were along for the ride and had to adjust to it as best we could. Grief is a strange animal, so she gave us as much lead time as she could in her decision. Even in her suffering she was present enough still, incredibly mindful, to give us everything she could to prepare us for the number one item on The Top Ten List of Things That Do Not Get Easier With Practice: Saying Goodbye.