Poring Over Einstein's Brain

Einstein playing the violin

Albert Einstein died in 1955, but not before leaving science one more gift—his brain. Pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey removed and preserved Einstein's after conducting an autopsy, and researchers have been studying it ever since, hoping to discover anything that may have lead to the physicist's genius.

Unfortunately for neuroscientists, Einstein's brain hasn't been in one piece since shortly after the autopsy. Harvey sectioned it into 240 pieces, many of which are missing. Luckily, before dicing up the organ, he also photographed it, though like the brain sections, many of those photos have been lost. But now a cache of Harvey's personal affects has been unearthed, including a number of photographs that are new to science. From the images, researchers have produced the most thorough description to date of Einstein's brain.

"Thrilling, in a word." says Dean Falk, a senior scholar at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe and a professor of anthropology at Florida State University, of studying the newly discovered images. Falk authored a paper detailing the findings, which will appear in the journal Brain, along with Fred Lepore, a neuro-ophthalmologist at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey, and Adrianne Noe, director of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, the institution that now has the photographs.

"It's a very comprehensive description of the outward appearance of Einstein's brain," says Sandra Witelson, a professor at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University in Canada who has also published research on photographs of Einstein's brain. "On [Harvey's] return to New Jersey in the 1990's, he had hoped to compile an atlas of all the photographs and slides of Einstein's brain. The current report by Dr. Dean Falk and colleagues partly fulfills this plan."

Falk and Lepore had inklings that these photographs existed, but hadn't been able to get their hands on them until they were donated by the Harvey family to the National Museum of Health and Medicine. Noe made the photographs and other materials from the Harvey cache available to the two scientists for eight hours one day in the middle of September. "That was the breakthrough," Lepore says. "We got a lot of photographs."

After Falk and Lepore photographed the originals, they pored over the two-dimensional images for months, tracing every gyrus in an attempt to coax new information from the folds of Einstein's brain. Falk was well-suited to the task of analyzing a brain in such an abstract state—as an anthropologist, she frequently analyzes skulls for clues about the organs they once contained.

"Because they are two-dimensional photographs, I had to do a lot of mental rotation to be sure a feature that I saw in one view, when I saw that feature in another view, did that identification still make sense?" she recounts. Perhaps ironically, the spatial reasoning skills Falk relied on so heavily in her study were the very same at which Einstein excelled, a fact which may have been influenced by his unusual parietal lobes. "He would have been much better at studying his brain than I was," Falk jokes.

Falk and Lepore compared Einstein's brain to 85 other brains well-known in scientific circles. They mapped every portion they could, identifying characteristics which stood out in comparison to the other specimens. The primary somatosensory and motor cortices in his left hemisphere—which are responsible for the sense of touch and the planning and execution of motion, respectively—were much bigger than was expected.

But that wasn't all that was unusual. "Einstein's brain has an extraordinary prefrontal cortex, which may have contributed to the neurological substrates for some of his remarkable cognitive abilities," they wrote. In particular, he had four gyri in that region where most of us only have three.

The prefrontal cortex is involved in higher cognitive functions, "including remembering things, keeping them online, and my favorite, daydreaming and planning the future," Falk says in an interview with NOVA scienceNOW. "It's perhaps appropriate because Einstein was famous for his thought experiments." But as to whether the presence of a fourth gyrus had any affect on that, she says, "We can only speculate."

This isn't the first discovery Falk has made regarding Einstein's brain. In 2009, she published a paper showing the physicist also shared a feature common among certain musicians—a knob-shaped fold in the part of the motor cortex, or the region that controls motion. Specifically, people who learn to play stringed instruments in childhood tend to develop a knob in that area, which controls the finger movements. Einstein, as it turns out, was a lifelong violinist.

Still, there is only so much that can be gleaned from photographs of the brain's surface. "When we look at photos, we are literally just scratching the surface because that is all we're seeing," Falk says. But that's not to say such studies are fruitless. "There's been this revolution in the contemporary neurosciences where now we have more information about what's going on underneath that surface, which enables us to perhaps better interpret what functional correlates of that surface may be."

Falk, Lepore, and Noe hope this paper represents more than just another scholarly publication. They hope it represents the start of a new chapter in the study of Einstein's brain. "As far we know, that set of photographs had not been viewed by the scientific community since the mid-50s," Lepore says. Both Lepore and Falk credit the Harvey family, Noe, and the museum for making the photographs available to scientists and the public. "That should have been done in 1955," Falk says. "It's turning things around."


Falk, Dean. Frederick E. Lepore, and Adrianne Noe. 2012. "The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs." Brain. DOI: 10.1093/brain/aws295

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