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Einstein's Brain: An Analysis of Newly Discovered Postmortem Photos

Talan, Jamie

doi: 10.1097/01.NT.0000425718.81228.3a

Dean Falk, PhD, senior scholar at the School for Advanced Research in New Mexico and the Hale G. Smith professor of anthropology at Florida State University, has devoted much of her career to studying the human evolution of the brain, cognition, language, and musical skills.

Working with fossilized records and skulls from human ancestors, she described in 2004 the endocast — a cast made of the inside of a cranial cavity — of a brain of a new species of Homo floresiensis, nicknamed Hobbit, which lived between 17,000 and 90,000 years ago. Hobbit's brain was the same size as an ape brain, she said, and from the cave “we see tools that tell us that the species hunted and butchered.”

It was in 2008 and in 2010, however, that Dr. Falk and colleagues were able to gain access to information about a human brain from more recent times — that of physicist Albert Einstein. Using previously unpublished photos taken during the autopsy of Einstein, they conducted a thorough analysis of his cerebral cortex and published their observations (and photos) in the Nov. 16 online edition of the journal Brain.

In an interview with Neurology Today, Dr. Falk discussed the morphology of Einstein's frontal and parietal lobes and what they suggest about the neurological substrates for the scientist's unique human cognitive abilities. Edited excerpts from the interview appear here.

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As an evolutionary anthropologist, I have always been interested in the roots of language, cognition, and human brain development. In 2008, I began studying a few photographs that were available from the autopsy slides of Einstein's brain. Shortly thereafter, I became aware that there were numerous other photographs that had not been made public since he died in 1955.

Pathologist Thomas Harvey, MD, prepared Einstein's brain for autopsy, and he had these new photos tucked away in his files. My co-worker, Fred Lepore, tried to find the long-lost photos; they had been donated as part of Harvey's estate after he died in 2007. The postmortem photos had been given to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in 2010, and we were able to get hold of them almost a year ago. We knew this would be an opportunity to do a thorough analysis and description of the gross neuroanatomy of Einstein's cerebral cortex.

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We already knew from other studies that Einstein's brain was a normal size (1230 grams) and had a normal lopsided shape. What we found from an analysis of the 14 new photographs was that various parts of his brain had more complex grooves and fissures than normal — in both lobes. Some areas were highly complex in their form.

We were able to see these things because of the unconventional angles of the photographs. It's as if Dr. Harvey took a camera and moved around the brain issue every few inches and kept taking pictures.

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Two of the photographs show sulcal patterns of the medial surfaces of the hemispheres, and another shows the neuroanatomy of the right (exposed) insula. Most of the sulci are identified. We compared these sulcal patterns in various parts of the brain to patterns from 85 normal human brains that had been described in the literature. Einstein had an extraordinary prefrontal cortex. Also, the primary somatosensory and motor cortices are expanded in the left hemisphere. His parietal lobes are also unusual. We also found many convolutions in the visual cortex. Our study also refuted earlier findings that suggested Einstein's brain was spherical in shape. We did not find that.

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We can't say that this one brain tells us anything about genius. We can say that Einstein was a genius and that he had an extraordinary cerebral cortex. At least that is how it appears on the surface of the brain.

The extraordinary convolutions in his prefrontal cortex, for example — which is necessary for working memory, daydreaming and imagining scenarios — may well have been active while he was engaging in his famous thought experiments, such as imagining himself riding alongside a beam of light.

Einstein's parietal lobes are also unusual — there were differences in the relative size and shape of parts of the right and left parietal lobes; these may have provided some of the neurological underpinnings for his visuospatial and mathematical skills, as others have also pointed out.

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Future research on comparative and functional neuroanatomy should provide insight about some of the unusually convoluted parts of Einstein's brain that we have described with little, if any, interpretation (for example, the external neuroanatomy of the occipital lobes, posterolateral temporal cortex, and inferior temporal gyri).

LISTEN UP, TUNE IN: Dean Falk, PhD, senior scholar at the School for Advanced Research in New Mexico and the Hale G. Smith professor of anthropology at Florida State University, gained access in 2010 to previously undiscovered photos that had been taken postmortem of the brain of physicist Albert Einstein. Here, in edited remarks, Dr. Falk discusses the new photos and what they suggest about the neurological underpinnings of Einstein's unique cognitive abilities:

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• Falk D, Lepore FE, Noe A. The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs. Brain 2012; E-pub 2012 Nov. 16.
©2012 American Academy of Neurology