In an attempt to divine the terrorist impulse, German officials authorized the removal and study of the brains of four Red Army Faction leaders following their deaths in the 1970s, according to news reports in Germany, but scientists apparently came up with no physiological explanation for the leaders' political violence.
The experiments, ordered up by state prosecutors, were revealed this month by the journalist daughter of a leader of the radical group, also known as the Baader-Meinhof gang. It killed more than 30 people in a string of shootings, bombings and kidnappings in the 1970s.
Bettina Roehl, daughter of Ulrike Meinhof, wrote in a newspaper article that her mother's brain had been preserved in formaldehyde for secret study. Roehl demanded the brain's return for burial with the rest of the body of Meinhof, who committed suicide in prison at the age of 41 in 1976.
The news magazine Der Spiegel reported today that doctors had also removed the brains of Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin and Jan-Carl Raspe, who with Meinhof essentially formed the senior leadership of a group whose name was a byword for terror in the 1970s.
Baader, Ensslin and Raspe killed themselves in prison in October 1977. Their deaths came immediately after a failed attempt by comrades to free them by hijacking a Lufthansa airliner and demanding their release in return for 86 hostages. German commandos successfully stormed the plane.
All the guerrillas were quickly buried and their families were apparently not told that their brains had been held back following autopsies. Roehl wrote in the Magdeburger Volksstimme newspaper that she and her sister were "horrified" at the discovery. It is unclear from her report how she first found out.
Der Spiegel, a longtime critic of Roehl, said today that she was trying to conjure up a Frankenstein medical profession when the real scandal was the lack of regulation governing organ removal, including whether the permission of relatives is necessary. Only three German states have such laws, and there is no federal law on organ harvesting.
The German officials' desire to decipher intellectual qualities or propensities by studying physical remains of the brain is not unique. Albert Einstein's brain, for example, was sliced into 240 pieces after his death in 1955 and some of those portions have been exhibited.
Examination of Einstein's brain has revealed distinctions that may account for greater neuron activity and better connections between neurons, according to scientists at the University of California at Berkeley. Physical qualities that might increase mathematical or spatial reasoning have also been found.
The Tuebingen Institute and the University of Magdeburg, where Meinhof's brain was variously stored, were ordered by prosecutors to turn the organ over to Roehl and her sister. The brains of the three others, however, are said to have vanished from Tuebingen.
Juergen Peiffer, the pathologist who examined the three brains, told Der Spiegel they were still at the institute when he retired in 1988. Peiffer said he was first asked to examine the brains by the prosecutor's office in Stuttgart. Peiffer has not said if his study led to any medical conclusions.
The three brains "are no longer here," Richard Meyermann, the current director of the university's Institute for Brain Research, told Der Spiegel. Meyermann said the organs may have been cremated to make room for other organs, but he could find no documentation as to their disposition.
Meinhof's brain, however, was passed along to a doctor at the University of Magdeburg in 1997. And university officials said at a news conference that they still have it. They summarized some of their findings, but declined to release the full report on the brain.
"The organ displays characteristics of neurological abnormalities which bring into question the whole issue of whether Frau Meinhof was competent to stand trial," said Prof. Bernhard Bogerts of the University of Magdeburg. "However, her behavior in the terrorist scene cannot wholly be attributed to the condition of her brain. For that, there are too many highly complex reasons."
In 1962, Meinhof had an operation for a suspected brain tumor, and Bogerts speculated that damage to her limbic system, which controls emotions such as aggression, may have changed her personality.
Roehl has filed charges of disturbing the peace of the dead against unnamed persons, the prosecutor's office in Stuttgart said.