New Insights Into Einstein's Brain

Pauline Anderson

October 10, 2013

New findings help confirm that noted physicist Albert Einstein really did have a remarkable brain.

The research showed that Einstein's corpus callosum was thicker in the vast majority of subregions than corresponding brain areas of elderly healthy men and thicker in the rostrum, genu, midbody, and isthmus and especially the splenium compared with younger healthy men.

In human brains, the corpus callosum is the largest nerve fiber bundle that connects the cortical regions of the cerebral hemispheres. It plays an essential role in the integration of information transferred between the hemispheres over thousands of axons.

"These findings show that the connectivity between the 2 hemispheres was generally enhanced in Einstein compared with controls," the authors of the new study, led by Weiwei Men, Department of Physics, East China Normal University, Shanghai Key Laboratory of Magnetic Resonance, China, conclude.

"The results of our study suggest that Einstein's intellectual gifts were not only related to specializations of cortical folding and cytoarchitecture in certain brain regions, but also involved coordinated communication between the cerebral hemispheres."

The study was published online September 24 in Brain, A Journal of Neurology.

Novel Technique

The study was based on 2 photographs of the left and right medial surface of Einstein's brain on which the corpus callosum was shown with great resolution and accuracy. The photographs were among 14 newly acquired photos, some of which showed that Einstein had an extraordinary prefrontal cortex and that inferior portions of the primary somatosensory and motor cortices were greatly expanded in the left hemisphere.

The photographs were supplied by study coauthor Dean Falk, PhD, professor and chair, Department of Anthropology, Florida State University, with permission from the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, Maryland.

Researchers compared Einstein's brain with 2 sets of controls. Because he was right-handed and died at age 76, the first control group consisted of 15 elderly healthy right-handed men of undetermined racial background, aged 70 to 80 years, all at least college graduates and without dementia. The second control group consisted of 52 younger, healthy, right-handed white men aged 24 to 30 years.

The investigators compared measurements from the 2 photographs with MRI data from the control brains. They used a novel technique of measuring and color-coding the varying thicknesses of subdivisions of the corpus callosum along its length, where nerves cross from one side of the brain to the other. These thicknesses indicate the connectivity of the 2 sides of the brain in particular regions.

The study showed that the corpus callosum measurements of Einstein's brain are greater than those of the 2 control groups except for the middle line length and corpus callosum perimeter, which are both longer in the old age group, and the corpus callosum circularity, which is negligibly longer than Einstein's in the younger controls.

There are significant differences in all of the corpus callosum measurements except corpus callosum length between Einstein and the old age group (P < .001). Einstein's corpus callosum also differs statistically from those in the younger group in the mean thickness, length, area, maximum thickness in the midbody, minimum thickness in the isthmus (all P < .05), and maximum thickness in the splenium (P < .001).

Einstein's brain weighed 1230 g, which is similar to the mean brain weight of the elderly control group but less than that of the younger control group. His corpus callosum circularity is significantly larger than that of the elderly control group and slightly smaller than that of the younger group. This suggests that his brain was healthy, with little atrophy, when he died, the researchers note.

The research also showed that Einstein's total callosal thickness is greater than the mean corpus callosum thickness of the older control group except at the tip of the rostrum and posterior splenium. In most of the genu, midbody, and isthmus and in part of the splenium, Einstein's corpus callosum is thicker than the mean callosal thickness of the young controls but thinner in the most rostral body.

The morphology of both his corpus callosum and prefrontal cortex may have provided underpinnings for his exceptional cognitive abilities and remarkable thought experiments.

An underlying assumption of the research is that an increased callosal area indicates an increased total number of fibers crossing through the corpus callosum. The fibers that pass through the callosal rostrum and genu appear to connect the interhemispheric regions of the orbital gyri and prefrontal cortices corresponding with areas that are involved in planning, reasoning, decision-making, memory retrieval, and executive function, said the authors.

Einstein's callosum is thicker and greater than those of young controls in the rostrum and genu, which suggests that the orbital gyri and prefrontal cortices may have been unusually well connected in his brain. "This hypothesis is consistent with the finding that Einstein had relatively expanded prefrontal cortices," the authors write. "The morphology of both his corpus callosum and prefrontal cortex may have provided underpinnings for his exceptional cognitive abilities and remarkable thought experiments."

"Miracle Year"

During his so-called miracle year of 1905, when Einstein was 26 years old, he published 4 articles that contributed substantially to the foundation of modern physics and changed the world's views about space, time, mass, and energy.

These and other findings "strongly suggest that Einstein had more extensive connections between certain parts of his cerebral hemispheres compared to both younger and age-matched controls," write the authors. This, they said, "adds another level to the growing evidence that Einstein's extraordinary spatial imagery and mathematical gifts were grounded on definable neurological substrates."

The new findings, they conclude, "suggest that Einstein's extraordinary cognition was related not only to his unique cortical structure and cytoarchitectonics, but also involved enhanced communication routes between at least some parts of his 2 cerebral hemispheres."

Finally, they write, "[T]he improved approach for corpus callosum measurement used in this study may have more general application in corpus callosum studies."

The study was partly supported by the 12th Five-Year Plan supporting project of Ministry of Science and Technology of the People's Republic of China.

Brain. Published online September 24, 2013. Abstract


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