Please Explain "donating ones body to science"
June 17, 2017 12:09 AM   Subscribe

Is "donating ones body to science" just a hollywood cliche or do scientists actually really use cadavers to further research. Is it merely a euphemism for the act of med students practicing surgical techniques or is it something less prosaic?
posted by ambulocetus to Science & Nature (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Medical students are the most obvious option for donating to science. Donating to a Forensic Body Farm is also a possibility. Or to the Body Worlds exhibit. Or to be used as a crash test dummy at Wayne State (though most of the Wayne State bodies are used for normal medical student teaching). There are brain banks for research into neurological disorders.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:33 AM on June 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

I used to work for a medical charity in the UK that funded research into neurological conditions. We funded a brain bank, a facility that collected brain tissue samples for researchers. It is a very vital part of research into conditions such as Parkinson's and dementia.

People donated their brains to the brain bank. Mainly people with the conditions and their families donated. They would like more donations from everyone, and in particular, they didn't have enough donations from people without the neurlogical conditions.

So yes, it is real and it is useful.
posted by Helga-woo at 12:40 AM on June 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

Totally a real thing. There are a bunch of different laws and rules for how dead bodies can be moved used and processed depending on where you are so it can be pretty complicated to make sure your body is donated to science if you aren't very specific about it and your next of kin isn't fully informed ahead of time and consenting.

Something that can get complicated is if someone is an organ donor and also wants their body donated for research. Depending on the circumstances they can't usually be both. A friend of mine (who is why I know and have had lots of very interesting conversations about this topic) who is very gung-ho about his body being used to further science had to come to terms with his internal conflict about not being an organ donor on his ID.
posted by Mizu at 12:50 AM on June 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Mary Roach wrote a book about this topic which covered many of the medical uses of donated bodies. Stiff: The curious lives of human cadavers.
posted by newsomz at 2:17 AM on June 17, 2017 [8 favorites]

This is actually my job - I coordinate body donations for 6 medical schools. Most donors are used to teach anatomy to medical students, and also to other healthcare professionals - surgeons, nurses, physios, military medics (e.g. courses on how to manage blast injuries) and many others.

For my schools, a donor can have their eyes donated to the eye bank (if they are able to be extracted in time for them to be useful) and we can take the rest, but no other organs can be donated to the living. You can be on both registers - the circumstances of death determine what can be donated in what fashion.
posted by Carravanquelo at 3:11 AM on June 17, 2017 [32 favorites]

To address one aspect of your question that hasn't been covered: yes, scientists use cadavers in their research. Whole bodies or, um, recognizable pieces are more likely to be used in medical schools for anatomical studies, but I know a lot of people that work that do basic or applied research with small tissue samples taken from cadavers.

In my graduate work, for example, we studied some aspects of corneal healing and needed lots of corneal cells. Normal cells don't want to grow on Petri dishes forever, but we preferred to see their behavior rather than cells with mutations that kept them growing indefinitely. And so, we requested regular shipments of corneas from an eye bank that for various reasons were not used for organ donation. These were okayed for use in other applications. I know of other researchers with similar projects. Some use tissue excised from living people (umbilical cells, cancer cells), but others come from people who donated their body to research.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:11 AM on June 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

This is a real and legit thing. My mother's body was donated last year per her wishes. Paperwork was filled out before she died, when she died we called the number, they (Indiana University) came out and picked up the body, they took care of filing the death certificate. I picked up her ashes a couple months later. I was pretty impressed with the entire process and all the people I dealt with at IU.

Body Donation info for Indiana University School of Medicine. (Info listed about possible uses, etc.,)
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 4:34 AM on June 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

My father, who died four years ago, wanted to donate his body to science. Specifically he had arranged to donate to the medical department of Keele University, where I took my (non-medical) degree. This allowed him to joke that he was going to Keele too.

Unfortunately the building that housed the medical department was undergoing major renovations that summer, so they didn't have the facilities available to take donations, and didn't tell us about it. We only found out when we contacted them after Dad died, at which point it was too late to arrange an alternative place to donate.

Still kind of annoyed about that on my Dad's behalf. He really liked the idea.
posted by teaspoon at 4:37 AM on June 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure where cadaver tissue is sourced from, but for example with ACL replacement, allografts are very common. There are like 300,000 done in the US alone every year, so... these ligaments have to come from a voluminous donor source. (Maybe tissue donations are covered by organ donor cards?)
posted by DarlingBri at 5:08 AM on June 17, 2017

Others have touched on cadavers in medical school, which is probably the most common use of donated bodies; it's not about "practicing surgical techniques" (that's what a surgical residency is for!) but rather about understanding the human body. My cadaver was my first patient. It's cliche, but learned about the body from her, not the idealized young male body as presented in diagrams (always a young male body, except for the chapters on the breast and reproductive system), but the real, particular body of an elderly woman who had scoliosis, and a hip replacement, and a left lung riddled with black tumors, and perfectly manicured fingers and toes. A decade later, I still remember her beautiful, crepey hand. Cadaver lab is one of the most important rites in a physician's training, though I know that donations are getting harder to come by, so some schools are turning to online tutorials, which is just. No.
posted by basalganglia at 5:58 AM on June 17, 2017 [25 favorites]

Please read this excellent comment from rumposinc about the value of the "silent professor."
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:36 AM on June 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

The recent episode of the Criminal podcast "All the Time in the World" provided a lot of detail about forensic research using donated bodies. It's about 30 minutes long and in my opinion was informative and interesting.

"The “body farm” at Texas State University is a place almost no one except researchers and law enforcement is able to see, because it’s one of very few places in the world that deliberately puts out human bodies to decompose in nature. Forensic Anthropologists observe decomposition in order to help law enforcement discern when and how someone may have died. We asked if we could visit, and they agreed."
posted by belau at 7:15 AM on June 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Both my parents donated their bodies to science and I will do the same. They each had survived serious illness and this was their way of giving back to the medical community.

In Canada, you must register with the appropriate medical school department while you are still alive. Noting your wish in a will or health care directive is not sufficient.

I was with my mother when she died in my home. My local medical school has its own funeral director who took care of all the details. My father died in hospital and the arrangements for collecting his body were done through the hospital. In both cases, there was nothing but respect and profound gratitude for this final gift.
posted by angiep at 7:25 AM on June 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'm an engineer designing orthopedic implants (think artificial joints). We use cadavers all the time to test prototypes, validate designs, and train surgeons. I've worked on three cadavers in the last two weeks and have several more scheduled for the rest of the month.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 7:33 AM on June 17, 2017 [6 favorites]

There was a Reddit thread this week from someone who trains search and rescue dogs to find missing people. The dogs are trained on real body parts, which are hard to get ahold of. And some dogs are "terrible at generalizing" so if you train them on a body part, they'll only report if they find just part of a body. If you want them to report finding a whole body, they need to be trained with an entire cadaver. Other dogs are smart enough to know that they're supposed to be looking for a human in any condition.
posted by Gortuk at 8:33 AM on June 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

A friend's dad wanted his body to be donated to science, but the medical schools nearby had their quotas of cadavers, so his body went to the University of Tennessee body farm. Apparently they keep the bones in a mausoleum / archive and friend could go visit his dad if he wanted to.
posted by momus_window at 9:48 AM on June 17, 2017

I hope it's a real thing as my mother donated her body five years ago.
posted by runcibleshaw at 11:23 AM on June 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Oh, it's real. Our wills specify that Mr. Terrier and/or I are destined for "the slab" at the end for the learning benefit of Michigan State students. We see it as our final "yes" millage vote.

My opinion only: burial is a waste of ground and casket materials. We opted out of cremation, because where would the ashes go? We don't want to end up on a relative's mantel, only to be knocked over by a blasé cat, and sucked up into the household Dyson. Medical school donation pleases us on every psychological level.
posted by BostonTerrier at 11:37 AM on June 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

Definitely read Stiff by Mary Roach, as recommended above. It's brilliantly illuminating and very, very well written.
posted by Capri at 1:54 PM on June 17, 2017

I'm planning on going to med school after I die (but not if I get an unusual communicable disease or mangled in a car, which they qualify). I think it's mostly for the purpose of medical students to study anatomy. I requested and signed a form from the local university medical sciences faculty, at the same time that I specified this in my legal will.
posted by ovvl at 5:53 PM on June 17, 2017

I am terribly jealous of the man who donated his body to science and ended up advancing the science of archaeology by being mummified by researchers who wanted to test how the Ancient Egyptians did it.

They had to figure out how to extract his brain through his nose (they had an instruction papyrus giving them all the steps to follow in order, but it was a cheat sheet to remind someone who might have forgotten the order of the steps 4000 years ago, not a training manual for beginners) and it had them stumped for awhile because there is no connection between the brain and the nose, until finally they punched a hole through the bone with a pointed bit of wire, but then the brain was solid - well, not precisely solid, it was jelly, but it still wouldn't come down through the tiny little passage they made, even when they tried to pull it down with a teensy crochet hook, it just smooshed. So they finally poked the wire back up and twiddled it around vigorously and whipped the brain to liquefy it, and then all they had to do was tilt the nice man's head sideways, like so, and pour his brain brain out into the canopic jar.

So, yes, donating your body to science is a thing, but mostly it means donating it to the education of medical students, who not only treat their cadavers with reverence, but at our local Medical School hold a memorial service for their cadavers at the end of the year. Apparently this traumatizes the students less.
posted by Jane the Brown at 8:04 PM on June 17, 2017 [3 favorites]

A couple of my favorite pro wrestlers have donated (or have made plans to donate) their brains on behalf of research into concussions and other traumatic brain injury in athletes.
posted by The demon that lives in the air at 4:04 PM on June 18, 2017

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