The Black-Market Value of 100 Brains: Less Than One Good Kidney

Marty Feldman steals a special brain in Young Frankenstein Photograph by 20th Century Fox Film Corp via Everett Collection

The 100 human brains that went missing in Texas have been found.

After the undeniably intriguing prospect of a massive brain heist lit up the Internet, officials from the University of Texas found their misplaced brains at a facility on the San Antonio campus. “They have the brains,” Timothy Schallert, a neuroscience professor from the Austin campus that couldn’t find the samples, told the Los Angeles Times. “They read a media report of the missing brains and they called to say: ‘We got those brains!’

The initial speculation about the motives of a would-be brain thief—was it a student Halloween prank?—eventually turned to the black market. The set of 100 brains included the gray matter of famed clock tower sniper Charles Whitman, who killed 16 people on the university’s campus in 1966. Did the suspected burglar have a profit motive?

Human brains, it turns out, aren’t a great money maker. 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. (What does a brain transplant even mean? A brain transplant recipient could just as easily be described as a body transplant donor.)

The non-transplantability of brains means the only people looking to buy them are eccentric collectors—and apparently, they exist. A 21-year-old Indianapolis man was arrested earlier this year for stealing jars of brain tissue from the Indiana Medical History Museum, with the intent of selling the samples on EBay. He was caught after one of the buyers, a collector of oddities in San Diego, grew suspicious and traced his newly purchased jars of brain tissue back to the museum.

That EBay brain buyer paid $600 for six jars, plus $70 for shipping. At that price, the 100 missing brain specimens from Texas would fetch something in the range of $10,000. Not much when you consider that a Brooklyn businessman arrested five years ago for trying to broker the sale of a kidney was asking for $160,000.

It’s an inexact comparison. Whole brains surely must be more valuable than tissue samples, so perhaps the Texas brain collection is worth significantly more. And in the macabre world of body part collecting, does a mass murderer’s brain sell at a steep premium?

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