The Brain Market: How to Acquire Brains Both Legally and Illegally

Why it doesn't pay to be a brain dealer.

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Jun 11 2015, 1:57pm

Image: Allan Ajifo

In 2013, an Indiana man was busted for stealing about 60 human brains from a local medical museum, and attempting to sell them on eBay. He was apprehended after he tried to sell a brain to an undercover police officer at a Dairy Queen, of all places.

It was one of those news stories that just seemed to get weirder at every turn, inspiring a host of fascinating follow-up questions. Do cops regularly arrange stings at DQ? What are the logistics of a brain heist? Is there some kind of thriving black market for brains out there?

The answer to that last question makes the thief's motives even more incomprehensible, because apparently, brains aren't worth a whole lot. Hearts can fetch as much as $119,000 on the black market, and livers can go for $157,000. Kidneys have sold for upwards of $260,000. But the eBay customer who tipped off the authorities to the crime bought six jars of brain matter for only $600 (plus $70 shipping, naturally).

In short: Our brains are completely priceless while they are still in our skulls, but it seems they don't have a lot of resale value. "Human brains, it turns out, aren't a great money maker," pointed out Bloomberg's Drake Bennett. "Unlike hearts, kidneys, eyeballs, and livers, there is no black market in brains for the rather straightforward reason that there's no way to perform a transplant."

But just because brains don't inspire big bucks on the black market doesn't mean that they have no currency at all. Animal brains can be purchased fairly easily online, both for food and as teaching tools. Sheep brains, for example, go for about $13 a pop from science education stores, and if you're looking to chow down on some pig or beef brains, you can buy them for roughly the same price from specialty food sites like Healthy Food Club (according to one customer who claims to have "searched high and low for high quality brain," this is "the ONLY place that has it").

"Unless your brain is very famous or very pathological, I probably won't be able to take it."

Human brain samples can have significant value for medical research or as public attractions—especially if the brain once belonged to a historical figure. Take the brain collection housed at the delightfully macabre Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, which includes preserved samples of Albert Einstein's brain. "We have 46 slides showing many different regions of Einstein's brain, including parts of the brainstem and spinal cord," Anna Dhody, curator of the Mütter Museum and director of the Mütter Institute, told me over email.

No doubt Einstein's brain samples would have sold for a lot more than $600 on Ebay, given that those very same neurons once pioneered relativistic physics, and revolutionized our perspective on the universe.

On top of that, their value would likely be enhanced by their weird post-mortem journey, which surprisingly has a lot in common with the Indiana brain grab. It all began when the pathologist who performed Einstein's 1955 autopsy, Thomas Harvey, took the brain without permissionfrom the deceased's family, and sent slides of it to scientists all around the country.

Steven Levy talks about finding Einstein's brain. Credit: TEDxTalks/YouTube.

The remaining samples were left to gather dust under a beer cooler until they were discovered by journalist Steven Levy in 1978, causing a media frenzy. Eventually, in 2011, the slides were donated to the Mütter, joining the museum's many other premium brain displays. With its rich history both inside Einstein's head and outside it, the slides are probably worth a lot, so it's fortunate that they ended up on public display.

"[A]ll of the brain samples we have at the Mütter Museum, to my knowledge, are donated," Dhody told me. "The majority of them were donated by doctors, hospitals, or other medical institutions. I don't think any of them have as unique a backstory as Einstein's brain, though."

That's a high bar to clear, however, so it's no surprise that most of the Mütter's specimens have fascinating backstories. Some are even delivered fresh from the museum's employees. "[M]y kidney stone is an accessioned object as is my husband's gallbladder," Dhody told me. "Our director of the museum, Robert Hicks, donated slides containing his skin cancer cells, and we also have the hips of a former employee."

"Aside from being the bits and pieces of my co-workers, friends, and family, they are also important educational objects illustrating public health concerns in the 21st century," she said.

If you want in on this amazing anatomical party, you can try your luck arranging your own brain bequeathment with the Mütter. But Dhody recommends that you don't get your hopes up too high.

"We do get inquiries from people all the time asking if they can donate their entire body to our collection, and we are not set up to receive total body donations," she said. "[W]e are very limited in space, both in the galleries and the storage rooms, so unless your brain is very famous or very pathological, I probably won't be able to take it."

"But thanks in advance!" she added.

Jacked In is a series about brains and technology. Follow along here.

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