It has been more than 55 years since Einstein’s death, and yet, he still manages to aid science in his own way. How does he manage to do so, you might ask? The answer lies with a rogue scientist, Thomas Harvey, and how he made away with Einstein’s brain. He believed that he had an obligation to preserve this brain and allow neuroanatomists to use Einstein’s brain to find the secret to his genius.
One such scientist who requested the sample was Marian Diamond, who received chunks of Einstein’s brain via mail in a mayonnaise jar (makes you think twice when you’re eating your sandwich now!).

Instead of examining Einstein’s brain for extra neurons, which many scientists in the 1980s had been focusing on, Diamond was investigated the neural glial cells. To her surprise, she found that in areas of high complex thinking, Einstein had more glial cells (astrocytes and oligodendrocytes).

With the help of Stephen Smith’s 1990 discovery that astrocytes had the ability to communicate and rebroadcast chemical conservation of neurons to other parts of the brain, a “revolution of sorts in the world of neuroscience” was born. Professor Fields describes in his new book The Other Brain how the discovery has changed the emphasis from the typical emphasis on neural gray matter to an emphasis on the glial cells and opened up increased understanding in certain diseases.

One such disease is chronic pain. The typical treatment is to give powerful pain-killers, as it was previously assumed that pain had to do with just nerves. Now that there is an understanding of the importance of glial cells, it is noted that glial cells respond to pain by releasing substances that are importance for healing but also intensify the pain due to neuron excitation. If these glia do not stop releasing the substances that excites the pain neurons, then this is why the pain continues even after the injury is healed. So new treatments can be based on impeding the signal between neuron to glia.

So whether Thomas Harvey was ethical or not in “stealing” (he states that Einstein’s son gave him permission) the brain, it is apparent that Einstein has once again revolutionized a scientific field.  That, and brain slices are still viable when transported via mayonnaise jar!

For more information, check out this NPR article, and Smiths’ original Science article.




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