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Closer Look at Einstein's Brain

17 April 2009 (All day)
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Dean Falk/S. Witelson et al., The Lancet, 353, 19 June 1999

Not your average brain. Einstein's cerebral cortex has a number of unusual features that might be related to his genius in physics.

When a rare genius like Albert Einstein comes along, scientists naturally wonder if he had something special between his ears. The latest study of Einstein's brain concludes that certain parts of it were indeed very unusual and might explain how he was able to go where no physicist had gone before when he devised the theory of relativity and other groundbreaking insights. The findings also suggest that Einstein's famed love of music was reflected in the anatomy of his brain.

When Einstein died in 1955 at Princeton Hospital in New Jersey, his brain was removed by a local pathologist named Thomas Harvey, who preserved, photographed, and measured it. A colleague of Harvey's cut most of the brain into 240 blocks and mounted them on microscope slides. From time to time, he sent the slides to various researchers, although few publications resulted. Harvey, who moved around the United States several times in the course of his career, kept the jar containing what remained of the brain in cardboard box. Finally, in 1998, Harvey--who died in 2007--gave the jar to the University Medical Center of Princeton, where it remains today.

The first anatomical study of Einstein's brain was published in 1999, by a team led by Sandra Witelson, a neurobiologist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. Working from Harvey's photographs, which were all that remained of the whole brain, Witelson's team found that Einstein's parietal lobes--which are implicated in mathematical, visual, and spatial cognition--were 15% wider than normal parietal lobes. The team also found other unusual features in the parietal region, although some of these were questioned by other researchers at the time. One parameter that did not explain Einstein's mental prowess, however, was the size of his brain: At 1230 grams, it fell at the low end of average for modern humans.

Now Dean Falk, an anthropologist at Florida State University in Tallahassee, has taken another crack at the brain. Working from the same photographs and comparing Einstein's brain with a set of 25 previously published photographs and measurements of brains from cadavers, Falk claims to have identified a number of previously unrecognized unusual features in Einstein's brain. They include a pronounced knoblike structure in the part of the motor cortex that controls the left hand; in other studies, similar "knobs" have been associated with musical ability. (Einstein had played the violin avidly since childhood.)

Like Witelson's team, Falk found that Einstein's parietal lobes were larger; comparing the photographs of Einstein's brain with a second previously published set of 58 control brains, Falk also identified a very rare pattern of grooves and ridges in the parietal regions of both sides of the brain that she speculates might somehow be related to Einstein's superior ability to conceptualize physics problems. Indeed, during his lifetime, Einstein often claimed that he thought in images and sensations rather than in words. Einstein's talent as "a synthetic thinker" may have arisen from the unusual anatomy of his parietal cortex, Falk concludes in her report in press in Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience.

Yet Falk concedes that her interpretation is still hypothetical. Marc Bangert, a neuropsychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, seconds that reservation, saying, "It is very speculative, but this is what one has to deal with given the data available, some old photographs." Frederick Lepore, a neurologist at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey, says that Falk appears to have accurately identified a number of new features in the physicist's brain, and he finds the correlation between the motor cortex "knob" and Einstein's violin training to be "persuasive and intriguing." Nevertheless, Lepore says, he is "uneasy" with the suggestion that Einstein was a "parietal genius" who thought strictly in images and sensations, citing among other evidence his superior school grades in Latin and the sciences and mediocre marks in art and geography.

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