In 1955, just after Albert Einstein died, Princeton Hospital pathologist Thomas Harvey removed the famous physicist’s brain during an autopsy, sliced it up into roughly 170 parts, plunked them in formaldehyde and mounted them on slides, thus preserving the organ for posterity. Since then, some of those slices have been scanned and digitized to allow for easier access by researchers. Now everyone with an iPad can draw their own conclusions. Last week, Apple released an app, NMHMC Harvey, that allows users to check out all of the slides that have been digitized so far; more are on the way. (Profits from the sale of the app, which costs $9.99, will go to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring and its satellite in Chicago.) The app allows users to select slides from different sections of Einstein’s brain and zoom in to examine them at a microscopic level. What’s there to see? To a layperson’s eye, it may just look like a whole bunch of gray matter, but it is a chance to get an up-close look at an important if slightly gross piece of history.
In this month’s issue of Discover, Harvard genetics professor George Church and science writer Ed Regis propose methods that scientists might use to increase our life span by tweaking the human genome. Among them: cloning stem cells and using them to regenerate organs as they wear out, and reprogramming viruses so that they smuggle beneficial genetic information into our cells. “Ultimately, synthetic biology could free us from obsolete limits set by evolution,” they write. “We could repair damaged tissue and direct growth of new tissue to create built-in body and brain parts that could interface with electronic devices.” And what to do when the world becomes crowded with an emerging population of semi-immortal beings? Don’t worry about it. “The vision of a nearly immortal populace squelching the job prospects of youth is reminiscent of 19th-century Luddite concerns about machines taking over jobs for humans,” the authors explain in the article, which is adapted from their book “Regenesis,” to be published next month. “The likelier scenario is a population implosion marked by increasing numbers of older, healthier citizens, and more women in positions of power, a situation that could be beneficial for child rearing, philanthropy, diplomacy, and other aspects of our civilized life.”