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Tuesday, November 20, 2012
The Secrets of Einstein's Brain
From Ref 1 / with permission of NMHM, Silver Spring,
Albert Einstein is considered to be one of the most
intelligent people that ever lived, so researchers are naturally curious about
what made his brain tick.
Photographs taken shortly after his death, but
never before analyzed in detail, have now revealed that Einstein’s brain had
several unusual features, providing tantalizing clues about the neural basis of
his extraordinary mental abilities.
While doing Einstein's autopsy, the pathologist
Thomas Harvey removed the physicist's brain and preserved it in formalin. He
then took dozens of black and white photographs of it before it was cut up into
240 blocks. He then took tissue samples from each block, mounted them onto
microscope slides and distributed the slides to some of the world’s best
The autopsy revealed that Einstein’s brain was
smaller than average and subsequent analyses showed all the changes that
normally occur with ageing. Nothing more was analyzed, however. Harvey stored
the brain fragments in a formalin-filled jar in a cider box kept under a beer
cooler in his office. Decades later, several researchers asked Harvey for some
samples, and noticed some unusual features when analyzing them.
The study done in 1985 showed that two parts of his
brain contained an unusually large number of non-neuronal cells called glia for
And one published more than a decade later showed that the parietal lobe lacks a
furrow and a structure called the operculum.
The missing furrow may have enhanced the connections in this region, which is
thought to be involved in visuo-spatial functions and mathematical skills such
Now, anthropologist Dean Falk of Florida State
University in Tallahassee and her colleagues have obtained 12 of Harvey’s
original photographs from the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver
Spring, Maryland, analyzed them and compared the patterns of convoluted ridges
and furrows with those of 85 brains described in other studies.
Many of the photographs were taken from unusual
angles, and show structures that were not visible in photographs that have been
analyzed previously. The analysis is published today in the journal
Einstein was a keen violinist, which may account
for an overdeveloped section of his brain that deals with the left
The most striking observation, says Falk, was “the
complexity and pattern of convolutions on certain parts of Einstein's cerebral
cortex”, especially in the prefrontal cortex, and also parietal lobes and visual
The prefrontal cortex is important for the kind of
abstract thinking that Einstein would have needed for his famous thought
experiments on the nature of space and time, such as imagining riding alongside
a beam of light. The unusually complex pattern of convolutions there probably
gave the region and unusually large surface area, which may have contributed to
his remarkable abilities.
Falk and her colleagues also noticed an unusual
feature in the right somatosensory cortex, which receives sensory information
from the body. In this part of Einstein’s brain, the region corresponding to the
left hand is expanded, and the researchers suggest that this may have
contributed to his accomplished violin playing.
According to Sandra
Witelson, a behavioural neuroscientist at McMaster University in Hamilton,
Canada, who discovered that the parietal operculum is missing from Einstein’s
brain, the study’s biggest contribution may be in encouraging further studies.
“It makes clear the location and accessibility of photographs and slides of
Einstein's brain,” she says. “This may serve as an incentive for other
investigations of Einstein's brain, and ultimately of any consequences of its