What Happens When You Donate Your Body to Medical Research?

Human body systems. Photo Courtesy: Macrovector/iStock

You’re probably familiar with organ donation — and you may have registered as an organ donor on your driver’s license or state ID. But did you know you can also donate your entire body to science? It’s true! And now you may be wondering exactly what happens when you donate your body to medical research.

First things first: Donated bodies don’t end up in Dr. Frankenstein’s lair. They help scientists, students and researchers better understand how to treat diseases. Let’s take a look at how body donation can benefit society and what the process entails.

Benefits of Body Donation

Medical students need donated bodies to learn human anatomy. Photo Courtesy: Wavebreakmedia/iStock

There are lots of reasons why people choose to donate their bodies to science. Body donation programs usually cover the costs of body transport and cremation, so it’s a way to relieve financial stress on loved ones. And many people like the idea of continuing to contribute to society after their death. 

Body donations help scientists and researchers advance our understanding of diseases and develop new treatments. Human body donation has helped make research breakthroughs possible in diseases like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. If you have a neurological disease like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, you can also arrange to donate your brain directly to an organization studying these diseases.

It also plays a key role in the education of medical students. These doctors-in-training study donated bodies to master the complexities of human anatomy and recognize the physical signs of diseases. And you don’t need to be a medical student to benefit from these anatomical gifts. In the 1990s, the National Library of Medicine used two donated bodies to create the Visible Human Project — a publicly available 3D representation of extremely detailed human anatomy. 

Body donation is also key to training surgeons, so that they can practice procedures without risking any harm to live patients. The development of new and innovative surgical techniques also depends on the generosity of human donors. 

There’s really no limit to what these donations can tell us about the human body. For example, scientists at the University of Basel announced in 2021 that they discovered a new muscle in the human jaw after dissecting donated bodies.

How to Donate Your Body to Science

Donating your body to science isn’t quite as straightforward as registering to be an organ donor. Whole-body donation can be slightly more complicated, as there’s no single organization that oversees the process of matching donors with recipients.

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If you’re interested in donating your body, you have a few options. You can reach out to the nearest medical school or your state’s anatomy board to ask about body donation options. The University of Florida also maintains a list of U.S. body donation programs. 

You can also look for an organization accredited by the American Association of Tissue Banks. This organization runs an accreditation program for so-called non-transplant anatomical donation organizations. Going to an accredited program can help avoid unintended uses of your body. 

While organ donation programs may have age limits or other rules that disqualify certain donors, almost anyone can donate their whole body — including older people. There are a few reasons you may not be eligible for whole body donation, like having a disease that spreads through blood or body fluids (like HIV or hepatitis). Check with the donation program to find out what their rules are.

You can also choose to donate a loved one’s body after their death. Some programs allow close family members to register loved ones for donation — but again, you’ll have to check with the specific program to find out their rules. If you know you want to donate your body, it’s more straightforward to make the arrangements yourself before the end of your life.

What Happens After You Donate Your Body?

Loved ones will get cremated remains back from the body donation program. Photo Courtesy: _jure/iStock
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It’s common for loved ones to want to know what happened to a body after donation. It’s not always possible to find out exactly how different tissues were used, but it’s a good idea to ask questions up front and get an agreement in writing. Some programs will have you fill out a form agreeing to certain specific uses and saying no to others. And programs often send letters thanking loved ones for the donation and describing in general terms how the body benefited students or researchers. 

What happens at the end of the research period also varies by program. Programs may keep donated bodies for several months to a year. Afterwards, they usually pay for the costs of cremation and return the cremated remains to the family. 

It’s important to talk with your loved ones in advance, so they understand the entire process and there’s no confusion when it comes time to make funeral arrangements. Family members can hold a memorial service at any time, and they can hold a ceremony and scatter the ashes once they receive the remains. Medical schools also often hold community memorial services to pay respects to the donors and their families once a research project or semester is complete.

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