Day 745: Mind Over Brain Matter

originally published January 14, 2014

It is more than a little discomforting to imagine the center of one’s universe of perception, that grey squishy head-gloop that defines for us our life, our world and our being, getting plopped onto a table and poked by scientists in search of some glimmer of truth within the think-meat. Certainly I’m fully in favor of organ donation, either for life-saving or sciencey purposes. But no sense of morality is mighty enough to quash my nagging squirminess about my inevitable demise.

Nowadays it’s easy to feel secure in our medical knowledge of the brain. We count on it. Maybe we aren’t yet equipped with the tomes of knowledge that will eradicate our diseases and prolong our existences until whenever, but we should know how things work up there, right? But to get to this point, a lot of skulls had to be cracked open and a lot of eyes had to squint at what was inside.

Sometimes those skulls belonged to famous people. And sometimes the quest for knowledge was not at the front of the list of ‘why’s. Knowing this only makes me feel that much more squeamish.

This particular slab of beige jelly once bopped along beneath the frantic trademark hair of Albert Einstein. When the great physicist expired in 1955, scientists were swiftly removing this cerebral steak from his dome within seven hours, presumably with Einstein’s prior consent. Even with most of the brain’s topography mapped out in extensive detail, the physical construction of a brain this exquisite was bound to pique a truck-full of curiosity. Was some component of this thing going to be larger or more robust than average? Or did he just master the goods that the rest of us also have?

Thomas Stoltz Harvey was the pathologist at Princeton Hospital who was given the go-ahead to swoop his scalpel into the contents of Einstein’s skull. He removed the brain and weighed it, then photographed it from all angles with various lighting choices and a wide swath of wardrobe selections. Then he divvied the brain up into 240 pieces, keeping some for his own study and dispersing the rest among fellow pathologists.

No word on whether or not Dr. Harvey checked out Einstein’s lower extremities for science’s sake (hey, maybe Einstein’s power of calculated reasoning was wang-based), but I’m sure he snuck at least a curious peek.

In Einstein’s brain, the parietal operculum (that’s in the northeast corner of that forest area, north of the Sulcus Lateralis River) was missing. Well, some researchers believe it was missing, others claim it was there. Fortunately this part of the brain only corresponds to skeet shooting and needlepoint so Einstein was in the clear either way. His inferior parietal lobe – which is where mathematical thought, visuospatial cognition and imagery of movement takes place – was 15% larger than normal.

One conspicuous absence from the brain was the lateral sulcus, which divides the parietal and front lobes from the lower temporal lobe. Some doctors felt this might account for Einstein’s brain cells communicating extremely well with one another. Unfortunately they can’t pinpoint any certain correlation between the truncated lateral sulcus and brain function, so it’s unlikely that a lateral-sulcusectomy is going to be the next trendy surgery among Hollywood A-listers. But if you can find a way to bottle glial cells, you might be on to something.

If neurons are the fuel in your brain’s tank – and I honestly have no idea if they are – then glial cells are the friendly crew at your local 1950’s-era gas station, tending to your vehicle with striking precision. Glial cells hold your neurons in place, check their fluids and supply them with nutrients and oxygen. They help to ensure that signals get slung from point A to point B without any hiccups. Einstein had more glial cells than the average schmo, particularly in the left inferior parietal area, which is the chunk of the brain that incorporates and synthesizes data from other parts of the brain.

So the short answer is yes, Einstein’s brain probably functioned at a higher level than most because it was physically different. Not necessarily larger – that would be too convenient – but more abundant in certain regions, including its interconnection between hemispheres. He was quite literally wired to be a genius.

The storyline of Austrian composer Joseph Haydn’s post-functional brain is a bit more twisted. Haydn’s associate Joseph Carl Rosenbaum stole Haydn’s brain hours after its proper burial with the hopes of pursuing his interest in phrenology. Phrenology is a 19th-century stew of misguided science that eventually provided a number of clues for future psychiatrists and neuroscientists, but at the time was merely a simplistic belief that different parts of the brain are responsible for different things. The larger that part, the better the brain would be at that function. I suppose Rosenbaum wanted to see if Haydn’s ‘composition center’ was sufficiently bulbous to support his brilliance.

Indeed, Rosenbaum’s associate (or partner in crime, I suppose), Johann Nepomuk Peter, declared a fully developed “music bump” upon the brain tissue. Their pride turned to fear when Haydn’s body was exhumed for transport from Gumpendorf to Eisenstadt. Authorities, who were rather eager to return Haydn’s brain to the rest of him, searched both men’s houses and the brain was stashed in Rosenbaum’s mattress. Mrs. Rosenbaum then sprawled upon the mattress, claiming she was menstruating. The investigators moved on to the next room and Haydn’s brain remained on the loose. It wouldn’t be reunited with the rest of Haydn’s body until 1954, a full 145 years after the burial.

Vladimir Lenin’s brain was also the subject of posthumous scrutiny, slapping down upon the investigating table of German neurologist Oskar Vogt in 1924. Vogt noticed a number of giant cells, which he attributed to Lenin’s superior mental function. These were in fact cortical pyramidal cells, which are neurons that do relate to cognitive ability. I’m no scientist, but… well, I’m no scientist. That’s it. Lenin was a smart cookie, smart enough at least to overthrow one of the world’s great empires and replace it with a completely different system. Maybe he was packing the necessary cortical cells, or maybe it was something else.

And that’s really all there is. Just as Einstein’s brain-bits have been travelling around the world on display, or Haydn’s thinker was passed under the table for a century and a half, or Lenin’s mind-mass has lured numerous scientific stares at its sloppy pink folds, our brains might actually be equipped with some physical deformity that drops a hint of our potential.

Of course, the catch is that we’ll never know for sure until we scrape the thing out of its cranial prison. And by then it’ll be too late to do anything with the information.

Hence my continued discomfort.

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