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MIND OVER MATTER
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Memory, Forgetting, Brain Donation and the Search for Cures for Dementia.

Dr Bronwyn and Ania Dabrowska.

12-23 October 2011,
Shoreditch Town Hall



Review by Tom Dening, Journal of Dementia Care
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23/10/11

Donating your brain to medical science for the purpose of research into dementia is a big step to take. After all, our brain is the place where we locate ourselves - thoughts and perceptions and our souls too. However, most scientific advances in dementia have resulted from studying human brains and these can only continue if people give their consent for their brains to be removed, preserved, frozen, cut up and examined in various ways.

Two longitudinal UK studies of older people are the MRC Cognitive Function and Ageing Study (CFAS) and the Cambridge City over 75 Cohort Study (CC75C). Both of these have invited their participants to donate their brains, thus giving a rich source of clinical and social data across extended time periods (25 years for CC75C) combined with neuropathology and neurochemistry. Mind Over Matter is a remarkable and unique exhibition that celebrates the contribution of these participants.

Bronwyn Parry, social geographer, and Ania Dabrowska, artist, concentrated on 12 old people who participated in one of these two studies and who made a declaration of intent to donate their brains after their deaths. The exhibition has wonderful photographic portraits of the 12 people (aged between 84 and 100), with some biographical material. The connection to the brain donation comes through other series of pictures, displaying for example the equipment in a brain bank laboratory: knives, brain buckets, freezers and so forth. Another series of pictures are enlarged photomicrographs of sections through the temporal lobe and hippocampus. Other floaty grey pictures display scenes from the lives of the participants. A double slide projection brings all this and other related material together, and in the background we hear the voices of the people and music by Gaetano Serra.

The exhibition ran during October in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall, an atmospheric location with crumbling walls and ghostly old doorways and fireplaces. The venue seemed like a metaphor of an ageing brain, pockets of memory tucked away in gloomy corners.

The aim therefore is to link the donors with the science and to celebrate their lives and their contribution to the future. The exhibition looks at why they were able to contribute in this way and we find that there were diverse reasons. In some, it was a sense of religion but in others the opposite – if there is no soul or afterlife, then what happens to your organs after death is almost immaterial. The common thread was perhaps a wish to contribute to some greater enterprise. However, for me the most compelling thing for me was simply the stories of these people. Combined with these images of great age and great beauty, the stories of remarkable, ordinary people’s lives blow everything else away.

Mind Over Matter has finished its showing at Shoreditch but the organisers would be willing to mount it elsewhere by request. Further information can be found at http://www.mindovermatterproject.co.uk/.

Tom Dening, Consultant Psychiatrist & Medical Director,
Cambridgeshire & Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust