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Einstein was a genius! New photos may explain why

Posting in Science

When Albert Einstein died in 1955, his family allowed his brain to be preserved for science. It was removed and photographed from multiple angles; it was sectioned into 240 blocks embedded in resin, and slides with thin sections of tissue were prepared.

The samples were distributed to researchers around the world -- but only six peer-reviewed publications resulted from these widely scattered materials. Eventually, the majority of these photographs, blocks, and slides were lost from the public for over five decades.

When Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who preserved the brain, passed away, his heirs agreed to transfer all of his materials to the U.S. Army’s National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland. These include 14 photographs never before made public.

Using the newly discovered photos, a team led by Dean Falk of Florida State University compared Einstein’s brain to 85 ‘normal’ human brains. ScienceNOW explains what was so special about it.

  • Although the brain, weighing 1230 grams, is only average in size, several regions feature additional convolutions and folds rarely seen in other subjects.
  • The regions on the left side of the brain that facilitate sensory inputs into, and motor control of, the face and tongue are much larger than normal.
  • The prefrontal cortex -- linked to planning, focused attention, and perseverance in the face of challenges -- is also greatly expanded.

So, did Einstein start off with a special brain that predisposed him to be a great physicist, or was it doing great physics that caused parts of his brain to expand? (Answer: probably a combo of nature and nurture.)

The study -- “The Cerebral Cortex of Albert Einstein: A Description and Preliminary Analysis of Unpublished Photographs” [pdf] -- was published today in the journal Brain.

It also includes a 1955 roadmap to the brain, illustrating locations within Einstein’s previously whole brain of 240 dissected blocks of tissue, which provides a key to newly emerged microscope slides.

[Via ScienceNOW, Florida State University]

Image: Ferdinand Schmutzer via Wikimedia Commons

— By on November 15, 2012, 1:57 PM PST

Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure