Body Farms And Brain Banks: Some Of The Ways You Can Donate Your Body To Science

Deciding what you would like done with your remains after death can be a daunting decision.

For some, religious traditions will play a major role. For others, the wishes of friends and families will determine where they're laid to rest.

But for many Australians, death will present a final opportunity to do something for others -- or in the case of those who pledge their whole bodies to institutions like the University of Melbourne, for science.

"I always think that it shows how in society we see a lot of bad things happening in general life," the university's Head of Anatomy and Neuroscience Professor Jennifer Wilkinson-Berka told 10 daily.

"But this is the opposite. This is this generosity people have in their minds. They want to do something when they pass on."

Medical examiner or forensic scientist with dead man's corpse in morgue. He covers up the deceased man's body with a white sheet after autopsy.

Universities across Australia run body donor programs which provide students working to become healthcare professionals with the chance to closely study human anatomy.

Later in their careers, surgeons will also use donated bodies for advanced training.

"So medical doctors, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, all require the intimate knowledge of human anatomy to do their job," Wilkinson-Berka said.

"And so you can really only do it properly one way, and that's the traditional way."

Like registering your decision to donate organs and tissue for transplant with the Australian Organ Donor Register, if you want to donate your body to science you will need to flag it ahead of time.

READ MORE: Organ Donation Should Be Compulsory Unless You Opt Out

Each university has its own eligibility requirements for applicants -- including medical conditions which will make you ineligible --  and there is no guarantee you will be accepted when the time comes.

Due to the popularity of the program, the University of Melbourne only accepts applicants who live within 40 kilometers of the CBD campus.

Though the most common, university body donor programs aren't the only avenue for people thinking about making a contribution.

Associate Professor Michael Buckland, for instance, wants your brain.

As the head of Australia's Sports Brain Bank, Buckland -- along with a team of researchers -- is working to understand links between repeated head trauma and diseases like Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

Once known as 'punch-drunk syndrome' -- named for the ex-boxers who struggled to walk and talk clearly following a career of taking blows to the head in the 1920s --  is a degenerative brain disease most commonly found in athletes, military veterans and others with a history of repetitive brain trauma, specifically concussions.

Research into the condition is hard-going, as it can only be formally diagnosed and studied after death via autopsy -- something few of us will ever undergo.

READ MORERepeat Blows To The Head Linked To Brain Disease In NRL Players

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Aussie athletes who have pledged their brain include former NFL player Colin Scotts, former AFL players Sam Blease and Daniel Chick, and former rugby union player Peter FitzSimons -- but the bank doesn't just need athletes to jump on-board.

"We want everyone to sign up to pledge their brain," Buckland told 10 daily.

"The only way we're going to get a good comparative study is if we get not only players that have had head exposure but players of sports that have had no exposure to head injury and even their family and friends."

"They don't just want Kangaroos and Wallabies," FitzSimons said.

Medical training or CTE research not your scene? There's always forensic science.

The Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER) is dedicated to the study of decomposition of human corpses.

Image: AFTER

Owned by the University of Technology Sydney and found in the bushland of the lower Blue Mountains, it is the only body farm in the southern hemisphere.

"Research and training conducted at AFTER is intended to help police and forensic agencies involved in death investigations," AFTER Director Professor Shari Forbes says in a video on the facility's website.

This means working to better estimate time since death, locate people buried in secret graves, and contribute to cases involving victims of homicide or mass disaster.

Image: AFTER

When discussing someone's choice to donate their body, Wilkinson-Berka repeatedly refers the decision as a "gift" to students and scientists, and stresses the effort expended on paying respects to donors.

"We want the students and surgeons to appreciate that gift and I really think that they do, it's quite a somber process when you first go in and realise what somebody has bothered to do to help them train," she said.

Each year the program (like several others in the country) holds a commemorative service for their donors, inviting friends, family and students along to give their thanks.

When a facility is finished working with a cadaver, the remains are most often cremated and returned to the family.

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