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Searching for Genius Inside Einstein's Stolen Brain
Jon Hamilton / Source: NPR.org
In the 55 years since Albert Einstein's death, many scientists have tried to figure out what made him so smart.
But no one tried harder than a pathologist named Thomas Harvey, who lost his job and his reputation in a quest to unlock the secrets of Einstein's genius. Harvey never found the answer.
But through an unlikely sequence of events, his search helped transform our understanding of how the brain works.
In The Name Of Science
How that happened is a bizarre story that involves a dead genius, a stolen brain, a rogue scientist and a crazy idea that turned out not to be so crazy.
The genius, Einstein, died April 18, 1955, at Princeton Hospital in Princeton, N.J. Within hours, the quiet town was swarming with reporters and scientific luminaries, and people who simply wanted to be near the great man one last time, says Michael Paterniti, a writer who did a lot of research on the events of that day.
"It was like the death of the prophet," Paterniti says. "And so it got a little bit crazy."
Things got especially crazy for Thomas Harvey, who performed the autopsy on Einstein. During the procedure, he removed the brain to examine it, which is routine.
But instead of placing the brain back in the skull, Harvey put it in a jar of formaldehyde, Paterniti says.
"And out of that complete, sort of melee of the moment, he made off with the brain, and it was under somewhat dubious circumstances," Paterniti says.
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.
But Diamond was fascinated by another type of brain cell, called a glial cell. Glia means glue. And the assumption back then was that glial cells were just glue holding a brain together.
Diamond wanted to see if there were more of the glial cells known as astrocytes and oligodendrocytes in Einstein's brain. So she counted them and found that there were, especially in the tissue from an area involved in imagery and complex thinking.
The discovery got a fair amount of attention in the media. But scientists really didn't know what to make of it, says Doug Fields, a brain researcher at the National Institutes of Health.
It was "just an intriguing and peculiar finding, and kind of made people wonder what these astrocytes could be doing," Fields says.
But could they be involved in Einstein's genius in any way?
"At the time it seemed a little bit crazy that they could," Fields says.
Discovering The Other Brain
Then in 1990, a Stanford University researcher named Stephen J. Smith published a paper in the journal Science that would change everything.
Smith knew that neurons communicate using a combination of electrical charges and chemical signals. Scientists had figured that out a long time ago because the electrical charges are hard to miss.
Smith suspected that astrocytes might also have the ability to communicate, but were doing so using only chemical signals, which are easy to miss if you're not looking for them.
And Smith had an even wilder idea: Maybe astrocytes were actually eavesdropping on the chemical conversations between neurons, and rebroadcasting them to distant areas of the brain.
If Smith was right, it would mean that astrocytes could be involved in learning, memory and even genius. Smith tested his idea on living astrocytes taken from a mouse. And Fields, in his lab at the NIH, offered to re-create that landmark experiment.
He's staring through a microscope at a dish of astrocytes, which look like stars in a dark night sky.
"I'm going to get a little bit of this glutamate neurotransmitter in a pipette and just drop a bit of it into this culture dish," he says. "And we'll see if the astrocytes can sense that neurotransmitter."
The neurotransmitter in the pipette is glutamate, a chemical messenger often used by neurons.
"OK, I've applied the neurotransmitter," Fields says.
Fields then points to a computer screen filled with a video image of the dish of astrocytes. "Do you see that?" he asks as a cluster of astrocytes lights up with a flash of intense, warm colors.
Then, slowly, great waves of color radiate out from the initial point of contact. The chemical message is passing from one astrocyte to the next.
"I just wish I could get across the amazement of that finding — that these cells that were thought to be stuffing between neurons were communicating," Fields says.
It was like finding a whole other brain within the one we already knew about, Fields says. He says that idea inspired the title of his new book, The Other Brain, which describes how discoveries about the role of glia in the brain have caused a revolution of sorts in the world of neuroscience during the past couple of decades.
"Now we can see scores of ways in which astrocytes could be involved in many cognitive processes," Fields says. "And now it's not so crazy to find that there were abnormally high numbers of astrocytes in the parts of Einstein's brain involved in imagery and mathematical ability and that sort of thing."
Fields' book begins with the story of Thomas Harvey stealing Einstein's brain.
Harvey never got a chance to read it. He died in 2007. But there's little doubt he would have been pleased to know that, even in a roundabout way, his actions helped scientists learn something about the nature of genius.
"I think there would be some sense of destiny fulfilled if he knew that," Paterniti says.
As for the stolen brain, Harvey never did give it to Einstein's granddaughter, Paterniti says. She didn't want it.
So Harvey returned the brain to the pathology department at Princeton University, where it remains.
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