WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT BRAIN AUTOPSIES
Q. Why are brain autopsies so important?
A. The autopsy is essential both for research and diagnosis. There is a particular need for autopsy tissue from patients who have been closely followed by specialists in the area of degenerative brain disorders because they will have thorough clinical records, important for the researchers studying the brain tissue. The symptoms of different patients with dementia are not identical, and the changes in the brain tissue seen under the microscope vary from case to case. Comparison of the patient's symptoms with changes found in the brain tissue can lead researchers to an understanding of memory loss and other problems experienced by patients with dementia. At present, the diagnosis of AD can only be made with certainty at autopsy. Other conditions can mimic AD.
Q. How can a definite diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease and/or other dementias be made?
A. Until a reliable clinical test is found, the only definitive way to obtain a diagnosis of AD is by having the brain examined after death. The pathologist examines the brain tissue under the microscope, looking for the characteristic hallmarks of the disorder.
Q. How will information gained from the brain examination benefit the family?
A. Throughout the course of the illness, the patient's family and caregivers have dealt not only with uncertainty about the diagnosis, but also with many stressful and emotional demands. Learning the precise cause of the patient's illness may be a tremendous relief to the family, giving them a sense of closure. In the event that more than one family member has a similar illness, the autopsy provides vital information to the family and their physicians about possible genetic implications of the disorder. Other family members presenting symptoms in a similar fashion will often prove to have a similar disorder.
Q. What effect will the examination have on funeral arrangements?
A. None. The removal of brain tissue does not leave any visible marks.
Q. When should arrangements for an autopsy be made?
A. Although patients with a dementia may live for many years, families should think about an autopsy early in the course of the illness. It is important to make the necessary arrangements well in advance. In addition, family members need time to discuss this issue and explore any possible disagreements before the death of a loved one. The patient's doctor should be informed of the family's decision.
Q. Who can legally authorize an autopsy and when is this done?
A. The spouse, the patient's designated durable power of attorney, or the person appointed
as legal guardian.