For a man who never actually donated his brain to science, Albert Einstein’s grey matter sure does get around a lot. Obsessed with the late, great’s genius, as everyone of his day was, Princeton Hospital pathologist Thomas Harvey removed Einstein’s organ during an autopsy in 1955 without permission, and proceeded to slice it up 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.
If it were not for the initiative, however creepy, that Harvey demonstrated while standing over the physicist’s rapidly decomposing body nearly six decades ago, we would not have the prize specimen we have today — 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.
According to Sandra Witelson, who worked on the paper, “This unusual brain anatomy may explain why Einstein thought the way he did… Einstein’s own description of his scientific thinking was that words did not seem to play a role. Instead he saw more or less clear images of a visual kind.” It was suggested that, because of how the brain developed and grew in this novel way, neurons may have been able to communicate better, or at least, in a different way.
Using the app, neuroscientist Phillip Epstein, a consultant to the National Museum of Health and Medicine, suggests researchers could look for areas where neurons are more densely connected than in “normal” brains.
So, as we battle away, attempting to prove that it’s not our fault we can’t get our heads round quantum physics in one afternoon — Einstein’s brain was just better — one question remains. Just how would the man himself, who requested that his remains only be cremated, feel about his organ being put on show for the world to scrutinise.
“I’d like to think Einstein would have been excited,” said Steve Landers, who consulted on the app, the proceeds of which are going to the National Museum of Health and Medicine and its Chicago branch, due to open in 2015.
“There’s been a lot of debate over what Einstein’s intentions were,” museum representative Jim Paglia said. “We know he didn’t want a circus made of his remains. But he understood the value to research and science to study his brain, and we think we’ve addressed that in a respectful manner.”
Whether Einstein would have approved or not, we are finally making the most of our access to his organ. And it all could have been so different. Harvey, who also too it upon himself to send Einstein’s eyes to his colleague William Ehrich, stored away the rest of his sample collection after donating a few samples to museums and researchers. It was not until reporter Steven Levy, who was tasked with “finding Einstein’s brain” by his editor, visited Harvey at his home in 1978 that the remaining pieces were uncovered, stored away in a box marked “Costa Cider,” behind a beer cooler.
The experience of seeing the remaining samples, Levy said, was a “religious” one. We’ll see if the app can get the general public at least part way to that euphoria.