Now there’s a brainy idea

It is with admiration that we greet the decision by Jeremy Paxman to donate his brain for research into Parkinson’s disease. He will join a distinguished club that includes Lenin, Einstein and the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Anatole France.

Lenin’s own specimen is still preserved at the Moscow Brain Research Institute, where scientists have long laboured to find proof of his genius. Even Paxman’s fans will concede that the presenter’s grey matter is unlikely to provide such evidence, but it will aid research into a cure for a disease that affects 120,000 people in Britain today.

Many great figures have been lost to the disease, which affects not just movement, but frequently mood, memory and the mind as well: Salvador Dalí, the film critic Pauline Kael and the US senator Eugene McCarthy, to name but three. But wariness of brain donation (only 7 per cent of the population feels comfortable with the idea) has prevented much necessary research.

So we must hope that Paxman’s bequest encourages others to follow suit. This week we also mourn the death of J G Ballard, of whom Martin Amis remarked: “He seems to address a different – a disused – part of the reader’s brain.” Paxman’s offer is a reminder that the brain need never fall into disuse, even once life has left it.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rise of the Geek