June 2, 2010

Einstein Helps Scientific Discovery After His Death

Pathologist Thomas Harvey has helped transform our understanding of how the brain works after his search to unlock the secrets of Albert Einstein's genius.

Einstein died April 18, 1955 at Princeton Hospital in Princeton, N.J.  Michael Paterniti, a writer who did a lot of research on the events of that day, says that within hours of his death, the quiet town was swarming with reporters and scientific luminaries, as well as people who just wanted to be near the great man one last time.

"It was like the death of the prophet," Paterniti told NPR. "And so it got a little bit crazy."

Thomas Harvey, who performed the autopsy on Einstein, removed the brain to examine it, which is routine. 

However, Paterniti told NPR that instead of placing the brain back in the skull, Harvey put it in a jar of formaldehyde.

"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 song Hans Albert gave him permission to take the brain.  But the Einstein family denied this.

Harvey lost his job and was denounced by many colleagues after this.  But he kept the brain.  Paterniti says that his justifications were based on 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 told NPR.

Paterniti caught up with Harvey 40 years later at the time the writer became intrigued with the story of Einstein's brain.  The men hatched a plan to return the brain to Einstein's granddaughter Evelyn, who was living in Berkeley, California. 

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

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

During their road trip, Harvey told Paterniti about how he 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.

Marian Diamond of the University of California, Berkley was among one of the scientists who asked for a sample.  She wanted pieces from four areas of Einstein's brain.

During a 1985 lecture in New York, she described what happened after she asked Harvey for the samples.  She said she waited three years before finally receiving chunks of brain tissues by mail in a mayonnaise jar.

During that time, most scientists still believed all the important work in the brain was done by neurons.  However, Diamond was fascinated by another type of brain cell called a glial cell.  This cell was found to be the glue holding a brain together.

Doug Fields, a brain researcher at the National Institute of Health, said this discovery got a lot of attention but scientists did not know what to make out of it.

It was "just an intriguing and peculiar finding, and kind of made people wonder what these astrocytes could be doing," Fields told NPR.

When asked if the cells could be involved in Einstein's genius in any way, Field responded by saying "At the time it seemed a little bit crazy that they could."

A Stanford University researcher named Stephen J. Smith published a paper in the journal Science in 1990 that changed everything.  Smith knew that neurons communicate using a combination of electrical charges and chemical signals.  Smith suspected that astrocytes might also have the ability to communicate, but were doing so using only chemical signals.

This discovery showed that astrocytes were involved in learning, memory and even genius. 

"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.

Fields says this was like finding a whole other brain within the one we already knew about. 

"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."

Paterniti says Harvey never did give the stolen brain to Einstein's granddaughter.  She did not want it.

So Harvey returned the brain to the pathology department at Princeton University, where it still remains.