Wednesday, June 2, 2010

They Saved Einstein's Brain

Caution: Geeky content
"Einstein's Brain Unlocks Some Mysteries Of The Mind"
NPR (June 1, 2010)

" 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...."

I'll let you read the NPR article for details about a real-life analog to the mad scientist of the silver screen. Basically, somebody dropped Einstein's brain in formaldehyde, sliced out bits and pieces for fellow-scientists - one of them got the bit-o-brain in a mayonnaise jar - and eventually sent it in a Tupperware container to one of Einstein's descendants.

You can't make this sort of thing up, folks.

Glial Cells: Glue No More

As it turns out, even after all that 'science,' there was enough left to study, decades later. Back to that NPR article.

"... 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?..."

The answer is 'could be.'

"...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...."

Astrocytes respond to at least one neurotransmitter - chemicals that send information between neurons - and neuroscientists have been studying 'the other brain' for the last couple of decades.

There are many ways to come at that NPR story. There's that ethically-challenged scientists who absconded with Einstein's brain - sending at least one piece of it through the mail in a mayonnaise jar. The Einstein family's history is - interesting, and a bit sad, I think. Then, there's the rather more straightforward collection of data and analysis that happened form about 1980 on.

Einstein's Brain, Aristotle, and All That

This story of what happened to Einstein's brain - and what we discovered when someone started thinking outside the 'neurons only' box - reminded me of Aristotle. I wrote about his brilliant, and wrong, analysis of the brain in another blog. ("State-of-the-Art Neuroscience, About Two Dozen Centuries Back," Drifting at the Edge of Time and Space (June 1, 2010))

If the title of this post sounds familiar, you know your sixties movies: "They Saved Hitler's Brain" (1968).


Maurice Mitchell said...

I always wondered why no one could find anything special about the brain of one of the smartest humans on the planet. Good to know someone finally looked in the right place.

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...

Maurice Mitchell,

So to speak. Yes: This does help explain why there didn't seem to be any serious correlations with brain size, number and arrangement of neurons, and so on.

Now, to find out what those glial cells do.

legbamel said...

That was an amazing story. I heard it on the radio this morning and I had to sit in my car to hear the end of it. Thanks for the commentary!

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...


My pleasure! And yes: "amazing" is probably the best word for it.

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