Albert Einstein’s brain has often been a subject of research and speculation. It was removed within seven and a half hours of his death. The brain has attracted attention because of Einstein’s reputation for being one of the foremost geniuses of the 20th century, and apparent regularities or irregularities in the brain have been used to support various ideas about correlations in neuroanatomy with general or mathematical intelligence. Scientific studies have suggested that regions involved in speech and language are smaller, while regions involved with numerical and spatial processing are larger. Other studies have suggested an increased number of Glial cells in Einstein’s brain.
Einstein’s autopsy was conducted in a lab at the University of Pennsylvania by pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey at Princeton shortly after his death. Harvey then removed, weighed and dissected Einstein’s brain into several pieces; some of the pieces he kept to himself while others were given to leading pathologists. He claimed he hoped that cytoarchitectonics would reveal useful information. Harvey injected 10% formalin through the internal carotid arteries and afterwards suspended the intact brain in 10% formalin. Harvey photographed the brain from many angles. He then dissected it into about 240 blocks (each about 10 cm3) and encased the segments in a plastic-like material called collodion. Harvey also removed Einstein’s eyes, and gave them to Henry Abrams.
Harvey noticed immediately that Einstein had no parietal operculum in either hemisphere. Photographs of the brain show an enlarged Sylvian fissure; clearly Einstein’s brain grew in an interesting way. In 1999, further analysis by a team at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada revealed that his parietal operculum region in the inferior frontal gyrus in the frontal lobe of the brain was vacant. Also absent was part of a bordering region called the lateral sulcus (Sylvian fissure). Researchers at McMaster University speculated that the vacancy may have enabled neurons in this part of his brain to communicate better. “This unusual brain anatomy…(missing part of the Sylvian fissure)… may explain why Einstein thought the way he did,” said Professor Sandra Witelson who led the research published in The Lancet. This study was based on photographs of Einstein’s brain made in 1955 by Dr. Harvey, and not direct examination of the brain. Einstein himself claimed that he thought visually rather than verbally. Professor Laurie Hall of Cambridge University commenting on the study, said, “To say there is a definite link is one bridge too far, at the moment. So far the case isn’t proven. But magnetic resonance and other new technologies are allowing us to start to probe those very questions“.
Scientists are currently interested in the possibility that physical differences in brain structure could determine different abilities. One part of the operculum called Broca’s area plays an important role in speech production. To compensate, the inferior parietal lobe was 15 percent wider than normal. The inferior parietal region is responsible for mathematical thought, visuospatial cognition, and imagery of movement.
Whether Einstein’s brain was removed and preserved after his death in 1955 with his permission is a matter of dispute. Ronald Clark’s 1979 biography of Einstein said that “he had insisted that his brain should be used for research and that he be cremated”, but more recent research has suggested that this may not be true at all, and that the brain was removed and preserved with neither Einstein’s prior permission nor the permission of his close relatives (Einstein, Walter Isaacson). Hans Albert Einstein, the physicist’s son, agreed to the removal after the event but insisted that his father’s brain should be used only for research to be published in scientific journals of high standing.
In 1978, Einstein’s brain was rediscovered in the possession of Dr. Harvey by journalist Steven Levy. The brain sections had been preserved in alcohol in two large mason jars within a cider box for over 20 years.
Study finding more glial cells in Einstein’s brain
In the 1980s, University of California, Berkeley professor Marian C. Diamond persuaded Thomas Harvey to give her samples of Einstein’s brain. She compared the ratio of glial cells in Einstein’s brain with that in the preserved brains of 11 men. (Glial cells provide support and nutrition in the brain, form myelin, and participate in signal transmission, and are the other integral component of the brain, beside the neurons.) Dr. Diamond’s laboratory made thin sections of Einstein’s brain, each 6 micrometers thick. They then used a microscope to count the cells. Einstein’s brain had more glial cells relative to neurons in all areas studied, but only in the left inferior parietal area was the difference statistically significant. This area is part of the association cortex, regions of the brain responsible for incorporating and synthesizing information from multiple other brain regions.
The limitation that Diamond admits in her study is that she had only one Einstein to compare with 11 normal men. S. S. Kantha of the Osaka BioScience Institute in Japan criticized Diamond’s study, as did Terence Hines of Pace University. Other issues related to Diamond’s study point out glial cells continue dividing as a person ages and although Einstein’s brain was 76, it was compared to a group who averaged 64 in age. Additionally there is little or no information regarding the samples of brains that Einstein’s brain was compared against such as IQ score, neurological diseases or other relevant factors. Diamond also admitted that research disproving the study was omitted. His brain is now at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia and two of the 140 sections are on loan at the British Museum.
Brains of other geniuses
Preserving the brains of geniuses was not a new phenomenon—another brain to be preserved and discussed in a similar manner was that of the German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss almost a hundred years earlier. His brain was studied by Rudolf Wagner who found its weight to be 1,492 grams and the cerebral area equal to 219,588 square millimeters. Also found were highly developed convolutions, which was suggested as the explanation of his genius. Other brains that were removed and studied include that of Vladimir Lenin and the Native American, Ishi. The brain of Edward H. Rulloff, a noted philologist and criminal, was removed after his death in 1871; in 1972, it was still the second largest brain on record. Edited from Einstein’s Brain