Einstein's Brain - Stolen, Preserved and Cubed

Posted by M ws On Monday, October 15, 2012 0 comments
Not many are aware that after his death,  Einstein's brain was removed within seven and a half hours of his death.  According to Curiosity, "A Princeton University pathologist named Thomas Harvey removed the physicist's brain during an autopsy, and kept it in hopes of studying it to unlock the secret of Einstein's genius. Harvey said he secured permission to study the brain after the fact from one of Einstein's sons with the promise that the findings would be published in medical journals."

Wired reported recently that and Harvey proceeded to slice it up Einstein's brain into more than 200 cubes and slivers, preserve these in formaldehyde, then take them home. He lost his job after refusing to give the specimens up, despite getting permission from Einstein’s son retrospectively.

NPR reported: Harvey later said Einstein's older son Hans Albert had given him permission to take the brain. But the Einstein family denied this.

In any event, Harvey lost his job and was denounced by many colleagues. But he kept the brain. His justification, Paterniti says, was a sense of duty to science.

"He believed that his role was to preserve this brain and to put it in the hands of some leading neuroanatomists who might be able to figure out the key to Einstein's genius," Paterniti says.

On The Road With Einstein's Brain

Paterniti caught up with Harvey 40 years later, when the writer became intrigued by the story of Einstein's brain. Over the phone, the men hatched a plan to return the brain to Einstein's granddaughter Evelyn, who was living in Berkeley, Calif.

By that time, Harvey was in his 80s and living alone just a few miles from Princeton.

Paterniti drove down from his home in Maine in a rented Buick Skylark. When he arrived, Harvey was ready to go.

"He brought out his bags," Paterniti says, "and in one bag he had a Tupperware container in which he had stashed the brain."

They put everything in the trunk and started driving west.

Paterniti describes the trip in his book Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America with Einstein's Brain. The book includes some mind-blowing weirdness, including a stop in Lawrence, Kan., to visit Harvey's former neighbor, the writer and heroin addict William S. Burroughs.

Along the way, Harvey told Paterniti how he had tried to fulfill his duty to science by periodically sending bits of Einstein's brain to various neuroscientists.

"So, he didn't have the entire brain and much of it was sliced up," Paterniti says.

What Came In A Mayonnaise Jar

One scientist who'd asked for samples was Marian Diamond at the University of California, Berkeley. She wanted pieces from four areas in Einstein's brain.

Diamond doesn't talk about her part of this story anymore. But during a 1985 lecture in New York, she described what happened after she asked Harvey for the samples: Harvey agreed to send them, she said, but months went by and nothing happened. Then, three years later, the chunks of brain tissue arrived by mail in a mayonnaise jar.

At the time, the 1980s, most scientists still believed all the important work in the brain was done by neurons. And researchers had already learned from other samples of Einstein's brain that he didn't have a lot of extra neurons. MORE HERE.

Thanks to Harvey, WIRED reports there is now an iPad app that offers the most detailed public access view of Einstein’s brain to date.

For $9.99, anyone can download the app and take advantage of digitised images of nearly 350 brain slices taken from the collection bequeathed to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland by the Harvey family estate in 2010. The National Museum of Health and Medicine in Chicago digitized the slides for the app.

The app experience is touted as being like peering at this piece of history through a real microscope — the cellular structure and tissue definitions are visible, since Harvey stained each sample. Though it’s a great tool for students and researchers, there are a few issues with the finished product — namely, we’re not always certain what bit of the brain we’re actually looking at, despite Harvey taking a series of photos of the organ from different angles.

“They didn’t have MRI,” said Jacopo Annese of the University of California’s Brain Observatory, San Diego, who has digitised 2,400 slides from the brain of amnesiac Henry Molaison. “We don’t have a three-dimensional model of the brain of Einstein, so we don’t know where the samples were taken from.”

The app does organise the slides into general sections — brain stem, for instance — but cannot get more anatomically accurate than that.

Annese, whose work on Molaison’s brain will be accessible online from December 2012, predicts that there will be another Einstein, and when that individual dies, we’ll be prepared (we’re hanging on for that 3D-mapped interactive specimen).

Nevertheless, the app has finally preserved Einstein’s brain for future generations, so even as the samples begin to deteriorate we will always have this safe fail. It’s hoped that by making Einstein’s brain open source (well, pretty cheaply available to anyone with access to an iPad), studies will be more rapidly advanced.

In the 57 years since the great physicist died, we have managed to gather a few things from the samples. Harvey sent out slides to various researchers in his day, with results of varying degrees of success (there’s a great rundown here, taken from Brian Burrell’s Postcards from the Brain Museum), but probably the most well-noted investigation was Harvey’s own collaboration.

The results, published in the Lancet in 1999, showed that the parietal lobe — associated with our processing of mathematics, language, and spatial understanding of things like maps — was 15 percent wider then normal. From analysing Harvey’s photos of the brain, it also became clear that parts of the brain were missing, including part of the Sylvian fissure and parts located in the frontal lobe. MORE HERE.

Finally, please check out this article: What’s So Special About Einstein’s Brain?

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