01/18/2012 08:44 am ET Updated Jan 18, 2012

Baby Brains Said "Stolen" In England: What Does Science Say?

Why would doctors keep a child's brain in a jar for years after his death?

That's what UK tabloid The Sun asked in an article on a series of recent claims of unauthorized organ removal in England's Dorset County.

According to The Sun, Julie Middleton of Poole, Dorset, said that police told her earlier this week that the 'harvested' brain of her six-week-old son Regan--who died of cot death, a.k.a. sudden infant death syndrome, in 1999--had been found in a "hospital storage jar."

Macabre? Maybe so. But experts say it's not unusual for doctors to remove the brains of deceased patients.

"For children and adults who undergo autopsy after death, brain removal is pretty standard," Dr. Edward R. Friedlander, chairman of the department of pathology at Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in Kansas City, Mo., told The Huffington Post. "If you want to get at the truth about the cause of death, the brain has got to come out."

The Sun reported that "the discovery of the organ...was made during a nationwide audit being carried out into human tissue samples kept by police." The article drew parallels to the 1999 revelation of a scandal at Liverpool's Alger Hey children's hospital, where 2,080 organs were removed from 800 children without parents having been informed.

Dr. Friedlander said that the nature of postmortem procedures may not always be clear to Mom and Dad. Parents are generally informed in advance that the child’s brain will be removed during an autopsy, he said, but some may be so distressed that they fail to pay attention.

Autopsy rates have historically been difficult to assess, but a 2010 inquiry by Pro Publica on U.S. rates shows widely fluctuating rates between jurisdictions, from 60% fewer autopsies than expected from the Arkansas state medical examiner to 85% more than expected in Vermont.

Dr. Friedlander, who has no special knowledge of the UK cases, said pathologists remove brains with the help of a scalpel and special saw. Typically, he said, brains are incinerated after a week or so. During that time brains are preserved and cut into thin slices for examination.

"It’s much like slicing a loaf of bread," he said.

In any case, he said, autopsies are crucial not just for determining the cause of death but also for advancing medical knowledge. Said Dr. Friedlander, "We would have zero medical knowledge without autopsies."