Brain Of Carl Friedrich Gauss Was Apparently Switched With Another
Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Sounding like a set-up for the Weekend Update segment of Saturday Night Live, ‘REALLY?!? With Seth and Amy,’ a story came out of Germany this week of a colossal mix up made 158 years ago. Of course, the SNL segment typically satirizes complete cock-ups, whereas the mistake made by those intended to categorize the brains of two prominent geniuses of the day was more what some might consider tragic.
And the mishandling of the brains of the best of us is not something confined to a laboratory in 19th Century Prussia. Einstein’s brain, considered by many to be the greatest brain of all time, was harvested less than 8 hours after his death and then, in a shocking act of chutzpah, was, for all intents and purposes, stolen by the medical examiner, Thomas Harvey. Harvey, acting against Einstein’s own wishes, (he wanted his body, brain included, to be cremated), performed an autopsy, removing and then keeping and cubing the brain. After 40 years of study with no conclusions, Harvey finally returned the brain to the Princeton hospital it was initially removed from.
In Germany, the centuries-old brains of mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and Göttingen physician Conrad Heinrich Fuchs were discovered to have been switched all those years ago. It is assumed the initial switch occurred shortly after both men died, in 1855.
But how is an ancient riddle like this discovered and solved? Leave that to Renate Schweizer, a neuroscientist at Biomedizinische NMR Forschungs GmbH at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry. According to Schweizer, she was able to accurately identify the mix-up by working with experts from other disciplines. Of course, it helped that both brains had been archived in the same collection at the University Medical Center Göttingen. Schweizer required the use of an MRI scanner to arrive at her final determination that the brains weren’t who they were said to be.
Placing the two brains on the long sliding table that enters into the tube of the scanner, Schweizer was able to monitor the measurements of the brains as the internal tissues came into view, layer by layer. “What scientists had long been examining in the belief that it was Gauss’ brain was not his brain at all, but actually belonged to Fuchs,” said Schweizer. “The two scientists’ brains had been switched many years ago, and so they need to be documented again.” Schweizer is both a biologist and psychologist.
Working with such aged specimens, how could Schweizer be so certain of the switch? She discovered the truth while working in her research field – the region of the brain around the so-called ‘central fissure.’ It is in this area that the brain processes stimuli, like touch, heat or pain, and where movement control is dictated. While studying what she thought was Gauss’ brain in 1998, Schweizer was looking for a rare anatomical variation that, it turned out, Gauss possessed: a visible division of the central fissure. Found in less than one percent of the population, it is normally of little to no significance to the individual affected. It can, however, cause minimal changes in motor and sensory function in a few of the cases.
When the fissure was located, Schweizer took her findings and decided to compare them to the primary literature related to the brain, compiled in 1860. Those writings had been written by Rudolf Wagner, an anatomist in Göttingen and friend of Gauss. It just so happens Wagner also prepared the brain slices of Fuchs. When Schweizer reviewed her findings with Wagner’s notes, she was shocked to find Gauss had no division of the central fissure. Further investigation showed her MRI images were actually an identical match to the picture Wagner made of Fuchs’ brain.
Perhaps reminiscent of ‘Young Frankenstein,’ when Igor (that’s pronounced EYE-gor) was tasked with retrieving a brain for the creation, Schweizer visited the collection at the Institute of Ethics and History of Medicine and, lurking among the jars of brains, found her suspicions were confirmed: the brain taken from Gauss was in a glass jar labeled ‘C.H. Fuchs’, while Fuchs’ brain was marked ‘C.F.G__ss’. Schweizer explains, “My theory, according to the information currently available, is that the brains were probably put into the wrong jars relatively soon after Wagner’s examinations, at the time when the surface of the cerebral cortex was being measured again.” And that was the last time there was a comparative study of the two brains, explaining why it took a happy accident to discover that the switch had occurred.
And the person most happy that the brains are finally back in their rightful homes is Axel Wittman, director of the Göttingen-based Gauss Society. “The Gauss Society’s Director…was an active supporter of the project from the start and his extensive knowledge was extremely helpful in uncovering the mistake made so many years ago,” states Schweizer. Speaking of the importance of (relatively) well maintained historic collections she continues, “It’s a stroke of luck that the brains in the collection, which are in perfect condition, are still accessible to researchers more than 150 years down the line.”
This story would be interesting enough if it concluded as an ‘all’s well that ends well’ tale. But as Jens Frahm, Director of Biomedizinische NMR Forschungs GmbH states, “We are not looking for the genie in the gyri of the brain. What we are most interested in is documenting specimens for the long term future to provide a foundation for continuing basic research.” Future scientists and researchers, therefore, will benefit from all MRI images and photographs of the historic brains having been digitally archived. In fact, Schweizer herself will be the first to benefit as she is using the collected archived images to study the divided central fissure in Fuchs’ brain, both above and below the surface of the cerebral cortex.
Any previous research and results derived from study of either Gauss’ or Fuchs’ brain would normally be invalidated or, at the very least, called into question. However, Walter Schulz-Schaeffer, head of the Prion and Dementia Research Unit of the Institute of Neuropathology at University Medical Center Göttingen, reviewing those works which described the misplaced mathematicians brain as normal, claims those publications do not contain incorrect information.
After conducting the first examination of the now rightfully identified brain of Gauss, Schulz-Schaeffer commented, “The age-related changes in Gauss’ brain are normal for a man of 78. Changes in the basal ganglia are indicative of high blood pressure.” He goes on to comment that both Gauss and Fuchs had brains that are largely anatomically unremarkable.
With the historical brains returned to the names of the men in whom they resided, this writer has but one question that, should the act of time travel be a reality, he would pose to the man or men who began this almost unsolved historical riddle: You’re a scientist. You’re supposed to be brilliant and you can’t put things back where you got them? You can’t do that? REALLY?!?
Image 2 (below): The brains of Carl Friedrich Gauss and Conrad Heinrich Fuchs side by side. Credits: Jens Frahm and Sabine Hofer / Biomedizinische NMR Forschungs GmbH 2013