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Einstein’s brain gets a new look-over

Nov. 17, 2012
Courtesy of Florida State University
and World Science staff

Parts of Al­bert Ein­stein’s brain are visibly un­like those of most peo­ple and this could help ac­count for his ge­nius, ac­cord­ing to a new stu­dy.

In it, Flor­i­da State Uni­vers­ity ev­o­lu­tion­ary an­thro­po­l­o­gist Dean Falk and col­leagues de­scribe for the first time the en­tire cer­e­bral cor­tex, or out­er lay­er, of Ein­stein’s brain from an ex­amina­t­ion of 14 re­cently dis­cov­ered pho­tographs. 

A photo of Einstein's brain, as ori­gin­ally la­beled in 1955, which was used in the new re­search. (Cre­dit: Nat'l Mu­seum of Health & Med­i­cine)


The re­search­ers com­pared the path-break­ing phys­i­cist’s brain to 85 “nor­mal” hu­man brains and, in light of cur­rent im­ag­ing stud­ies, in­ter­preted what they called its un­usu­al fea­tures. They ex­am­ined re­la­tive sizes of dif­fer­ent sec­tions and the pat­tern of sulci, or sur­face folds.

“Although the over­all size and asym­met­ri­c shape of Ein­stein’s brain were nor­mal, the pre­fron­tal, so­matosen­sory, pri­ma­ry mo­tor, pa­ri­e­tal, tem­po­ral and oc­cip­i­tal cor­ti­ces were ex­tra­or­di­nary,” said Falk, re­fer­ring to spe­cif­ic sec­tions of the cer­e­bral cor­tex. 

The pre­fron­tal cor­tex is known as the seat of cog­ni­tive anal­y­sis and ab­stract thought, and is some­times re­ferred to as the “CEO of the brain.” Spe­cif­ic parts of Ein­stein’s pre­fron­tal cor­tex are “rel­a­tively ex­pand­ed,” Falk and col­leagues wrote, “which may have pro­vid­ed un­der­pin­nings for some of his ex­tra­or­di­nary cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties.”

These same brain ar­eas are as­so­ci­at­ed “with the emer­gence of high­er cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties” in ev­o­lu­tion, they added.

The find­ings were pub­lished Nov. 16 in the jour­nal Brain.

The part of Ein­stein’s cer­e­bral cor­tex—the occi­pe­tal lobe—as­so­ci­at­ed with the pro­cess­ing of vis­u­al in­forma­t­ion was “very con­vo­lut­ed” com­pared to the av­er­age, Falk and col­leagues not­ed. This may have re­flected ex­tra pro­cess­ing pow­er for ment­ally vis­u­alizing things, they sug­gested.

Up­on Ein­stein’s death in 1955, his brain was re­moved and pho­tographed from mul­ti­ple an­gles with the per­mis­sion of his fam­i­ly. Fur­ther­more, it was sec­tioned in­to 240 blocks from which mi­cro­scope slides were pre­pared. A great ma­jor­ity of the pho­tographs, blocks and slides were lost from pub­lic sight for more than 55 years. The photos used by the re­search­ers are held by the Na­t­ional Mu­se­um of Health and Med­i­cine in Sil­ver Spring, Md.

The pa­per al­so pub­lishes a “roadmap” to Ein­stein’s brain pre­pared in 1955 by the phy­si­cian Thom­as Har­vey to il­lus­trate the loca­t­ions with­in Ein­stein’s pre­vi­ously whole brain of 240 dis­sect­ed blocks of tis­sue.


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Parts of Albert Einstein’s brain have been found to be unlike those of most people and could be related to his extraordinary cognitive abilities, according to a new study. In it, Florida State University evolutionary anthropologist Dean Falk and colleagues describe for the first time the entire cerebral cortex, or outer layer, of Einstein’s brain from an examination of 14 recently discovered photographs. The researchers compared the famed physicist’s brain to 85 “normal” human brains and, in light of current imaging studies, interpreted what they called its unusual features. They focused in detail on the pattern of sulci, or folds, in the brain. “Although the overall size and asymmetrical shape of Einstein’s brain were normal, the prefrontal, somatosensory, primary motor, parietal, temporal and occipital cortices were extraordinary,” said Falk, referring to specific sections of the cortex. The prefrontal cortex, for one, is known as the seat of cognitive analysis and abstract thought, and is sometimes referred to as the “CEO of the brain.” Specific parts of Einstein’s prefrontal cortex are “relatively expanded,” Falk and colleagues wrote, “which may have provided underpinnings for some of his extraordinary cognitive abilities.” These same brain areas are associated “with the emergence of higher cognitive abilities” in evolution, they added. The findings were published Nov. 16 in the journal Brain. Upon Einstein’s death in 1955, his brain was removed and photographed from multiple angles with the permission of his family. Furthermore, it was sectioned into 240 blocks from which microscope slides were prepared. A great majority of the photographs, blocks and slides were lost from public sight for more than 55 years. The 14 photographs used by the researchers now are held by the National Museum of Health and Medicine. The paper also publishes a “roadmap” to Einstein’s brain prepared in 1955 by the physician Thomas Harvey to illustrate the locations within Einstein’s previously whole brain of 240 dissected blocks of tissue, which provides a key to locating the origins within the brain of the newly emerged histological slides. The area of Einstein’s cerebral cortex associated with the processing of visual information was “very convoluted” compared to the average, Falk and colleagues noted. This may have reflected extra processing power dedicated to visualizing objects, compared to the norm, they added.