A new study of the great physicist’s brain received a huge amount of media coverage, but some aren’t convinced by how it has been interpreted
Albert Einstein’s brain fascinates scientists and the general public alike, because it may provide clues to the neurological basis of his extraordinary intellectual abilities. The latest study of the great physicist’s grey matter was published last month. I wrote a news story about it, which became one of the most popular of the year on the Nature News website. The researchers analyzed previously unpublished photographs of the great physicist’s cerebral cortex, and claim to have identified unusual, and hitherto unknown, features. But some are sceptical about how the findings have been interpreted.
Shortly after Einstein’s death on 18th April, 1955, pathologist Thomas Harvey removed his brain and dissected it into 240 blocks, taking dozens of photographs while he did so. He then sent some of the tissue samples and photographs to a handful of researchers, and eventually, a small number of studies emerged. The early ones showed that Einstein’s brain was, in fact, slightly smaller, and weighed about 200 grams less, than average, but subsequent investigations revealed several unusual features, which were, it was claimed, somehow related to his visuo-spatial skills.
Harvey’s estate donated what was left of the brain tissue samples and photographs to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in 2010, and earlier this year the curators of the collection started to digitize the materials and created the Einstein Brain Atlas iPad app, which allows users “to examine the Nobel Prize-winning physicist’s neuroanatomy as if they were sitting in front of a microscope”.For the new study, anthropologist Dean Falk of Florida State University and her colleagues analyzed 14 of the’s photographs from the museum collection, which together reveal the entire surface of Einstein’s cerebral cortex for the first time, enabling the researchers to examine the pattern of grooves and ridges and in detail and compare them to those seen in other brains.
“The new photographs reveal parts of Einstein’s brain that have not previously been seen in published images,” says Falk. “We have identified most of the external details of his cerebral cortex, [and] the complexity and pattern of convolutions on certain parts of Einstein’s cerebral cortex is striking and unusual in comparison to brains from normal individuals.”
“This is especially noticeable in the prefrontal cortex, which is important for advanced cognition, the parietal lobes, which are important for spatial and arithmetic reasoning, and the visual cortex. The primary sensory and motor cortices are also extraordinarily expanded in certain parts.”
Some argue that any conclusions drawn from such findings could be meaningless. “Studying Einstein’s brain is like studying the writings of Nostradamus,” says Chris Chambers, a cognitive neuroscientist at Cardiff University. “You can read them backwards, forward, or even sideways, and draw whatever conclusions you like.”
“We inevitably end up committing logical fallacies of reverse inference and faulty generalisation: that certain parts of Einstein’s brain may look a bit different to other brains, and that this explains his abilities. But the differences might have no functional importance whatsoever, and this makes any kind of conclusion extremely weak.”
Chambers adds that there is enormous variability in human brain structure, and that this poses another problem when trying to interpret such findings. “We’re dealing with just one brain and this makes it impossible to draw any firm conclusions about the population at large. Human brains come in all shapes and sizes and there is no known relationship to cognition. Very few people have the ‘normal’ brain we see in textbooks, and neither did Einstein.”
Clinical neurologist Frederick Lepore, a co-author of the new study, made similar arguments in 2001, and in an interview published online earlier this month, he is quoted as saying that the new study confirms Einstein’s brain “was very different,” but that “we face an insurmountable explanatory gap if we attempt to use our neuroanatomical findings to account for the mind that envisioned the curvature of the universe.”
He goes on to say that the next logical step would be to try to generate Einstein’s connectome, a comprehensive map of the connections in his brain, and that a comparison of the brain to those of other geniuses is another possible avenue of research.
Falk believes that the photographs could help researchers to map Einstein’s connectome. “[We have published]… the ‘roadmap’ that provides a key between these areas and recently emerged histological slides of Einstein’s brain, which may allow scientists to study its internal connectivity. These photographs should become more meaningful in the future, as more is learned about the functions of various regions.”
Reference: Falk, D., et al. (2012). The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs. Brain, doi: 10.1093/brain/aws295