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In the 55 years since Albert Einstein's death, many scientists have tried to figure out what made him so smart. 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 brilliance. Harvey never found the answer but through an unlikely sequence of events, his search helped transform our understanding of how the brain works.

NPR's Jon Hamilton tells the story of a dead genius, a stolen brain, a rogue scientist, and a crazy idea that turned out not to be so crazy.

JON HAMILTON: First, the genius.

Unidentified Man: Einstein, brilliant physicist and theoretical mathematician, died at Princeton Hospital, in the same seclusion which cloaked virtually all his activities in life.

HAMILTON: It was 1955. Princeton, New Jersey was swarming with reporters and scientific luminaries. Michael Paterniti, a writer, says the town was also filled with people who simply wanted to be near the great man one last time.

Mr. MICHAEL PATERNITI (Writer): It was like the death of the prophet. And so it got a little bit crazy.

HAMILTON: Especially for Thomas Harvey, who performed the autopsy on Einstein. During the procedure, he removed the brain. That's routine. But Paterniti says instead of putting it back in the skull, Harvey put it in a jar of formaldehyde.

Mr. PATERNITI: And out of that complete, sort of melee of the moment, he made off with the brain and it was under somewhat, you know, dubious circumstances.

HAMILTON: Harvey said he had permission to take it. The Einstein family said otherwise. In any event, Harvey lost his job and was denounced by many colleagues. But he kept the brain. His justification, Paterniti says, was a sense of duty to science.

Mr. PATERNITI: 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.

HAMILTON: Paterniti caught up with Harvey 40 years later, when they hatched a plan to return the brain to Einstein's granddaughter, Evelyn. She was living in Berkeley and Harvey, who was in his 80s by this time, was living alone just a few miles from Princeton.

Paterniti arrived in a rented Buick Skylark.

Mr. PATERNITI: I went down and picked him up. And he, you know, brought out his bags, and in one bag he had a Tupperware container in which he had stashed the brain. And we put all his gear in the trunk, and we started driving west.

HAMILTON: Paterniti describes the trip in his book "Driving Mr. Albert." It includes some mind-blowing weirdness, including a stop in Lawrence, Kansas, to visit Harvey's former neighbor, the writer and heroin addict William S. Burroughs.

Along the way, Harvey told Paterniti how he had tried to fulfill his duty to science by periodically sending bits of Einstein's brain to various neuroscientists.

Mr. PATERNITI: He'd given away portions of the brain, so he didn't have the entire brain - and much of it was sliced up.

HAMILTON: 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 lecture in New York in 1985, she described Harvey's response to her request.

Dr. MARIAN DIAMOND (University of California, Berkeley): He said yes. And we thought, my, that was simple. And we waited six months, and nothing came. Long story short, three years later, in a little bottle, came our four chunks of tissue.

HAMILTON: They had arrived by mail in a mayonnaise jar.

At the time, the 1980s, most scientists still believed the important work in the brain was done by neurons. And researchers had already checked other samples of Einstein's brain to see if he had a lot of extra neurons. He didn't.

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.

Dr. DIAMOND: And each one of the four tissues had more of both astrocytes and oligodendrocytes.

HAMILTON: In one sample, from an area involved in imagery and complex thinking, a lot more.

Doug Fields, a brain researcher at the National Institutes of Health, says at the time, no one knew what to make of the discovery.

Dr. DOUG FIELDS (Brain Researcher, National Institutes of Health): Seeing that there were more astrocytes in Einstein's brain was just an intriguing and peculiar finding, and kind of made people wonder what these astrocytes could be doing. Could they be involved in Einstein's genius in any way? And at the time, it seemed a little bit crazy that they could.

HAMILTON: Then in 1990, a researcher named Stephen Smith, at Stanford, published a paper that would change everything. Smith knew that neurons communicate using a combination of electrical charges and chemical signals. The electrical charges are hard to miss.

He suspected that astrocytes might be communicating like neurons, but 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 he was right, it would mean that astrocytes could be involved in learning and memory, even genius. Smith tested his idea on living astrocytes taken from a mouse. Fields offers to re-create that experiment at his lab, at the NIH.

Dr. FIELDS: I'm going to get a little bit of this glutamate neurotransmitter in a pipette, and just drop a bit of it into this culture dish. And we'll see if the astrocytes can sense that neurotransmitter.

HAMILTON: That neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger that's usually used by neurons.

Fields stares into the microscope to see if the astrocytes respond.

Dr. FIELDS: OK. I've applied the neurotransmitter. Take a look at the screen there. Do you see this - see that? That increase in intensity and the warmer colors?

HAMILTON: A few astrocytes light up immediately, then slowly. Great waves of color radiate out from the point of contact. The chemical message is passing from one astrocyte to the next.

Dr. FIELDS: 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.

HAMILTON: Fields says it was like finding a whole other brain, and he's written a book about this revolution in neuroscience - called "The Other Brain."

Dr. FIELDS: Now, we can see scores of ways in which astrocytes could be involved in many cognitive processes. 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.

HAMILTON: In fact, Fields' book begins with the story of Thomas Harvey stealing Einstein's brain.

Harvey died in 2007, but there's little doubt he would have been pleased to know that even in a roundabout way, his actions helped scientists learn something about the nature of genius.

Mr. PATERNITI: I think there would be some sense of destiny fulfilled if he knew that.

HAMILTON: Michael Paterniti says he and Harvey never did give the brain to Einstein's granddaughter. She didn't want it. So Harvey returned the brain to the pathology department at Princeton, where it remains.

Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: To learn more about the man behind the brain, and to see a video of the special brain cells sending signals, visit npr.org.

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