Saturday, November 24, 2012

Einstein’s brain gets a new look-over

Parts of Al­bert Ein­stein’s brain are visibly un­like those of most peo­ple and this could help ac­count for his ge­nius, ac­cord­ing to a new stu­dy.

In it, Flor­i­da State Uni­vers­ity ev­o­lu­tion­ary an­thro­po­l­o­gist Dean Falk and col­leagues de­scribe for the first time the en­tire cer­e­bral cor­tex, or out­er lay­er, of Ein­stein’s brain from an ex­amina­t­ion of 14 re­cently dis­cov­ered pho­tographs. 

The re­search­ers com­pared the path-break­ing phys­i­cist’s brain to 85 “nor­mal” hu­man brains and, in light of cur­rent im­ag­ing stud­ies, in­ter­preted what they called its un­usu­al fea­tures. They ex­am­ined re­la­tive sizes of dif­fer­ent sec­tions and the pat­tern of sulci, or sur­face folds.

“Although the over­all size and asym­met­ri­c shape of Ein­stein’s brain were nor­mal, the pre­fron­tal, so­matosen­sory, pri­ma­ry mo­tor, pa­ri­e­tal, tem­po­ral and oc­cip­i­tal cor­ti­ces were ex­tra­or­di­nary,” said Falk, re­fer­ring to spe­cif­ic sec­tions of the cer­e­bral cor­tex.

The pre­fron­tal cor­tex is known as the seat of cog­ni­tive anal­y­sis and ab­stract thought, and is some­times re­ferred to as the “CEO of the brain.” Spe­cif­ic parts of Ein­stein’s pre­fron­tal cor­tex are “rel­a­tively ex­pand­ed,” Falk and col­leagues wrote, “which may have pro­vid­ed un­der­pin­nings for some of his ex­tra­or­di­nary cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties.”

These same brain ar­eas are as­so­ci­at­ed “with the emer­gence of high­er cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties” in ev­o­lu­tion, they added.

The find­ings were pub­lished Nov. 16 in the jour­nal Brain.

The part of Ein­stein’s cer­e­bral cor­tex—the occi­pe­tal lobe—as­so­ci­at­ed with the pro­cess­ing of vis­u­al in­forma­t­ion was “very con­vo­lut­ed” com­pared to the av­er­age, Falk and col­leagues not­ed. This may have re­flected ex­tra pro­cess­ing pow­er for ment­ally vis­u­alizing things, they sug­gested.

Up­on Ein­stein’s death in 1955, his brain was re­moved and pho­tographed from mul­ti­ple an­gles with the per­mis­sion of his fam­i­ly. Fur­ther­more, it was sec­tioned in­to 240 blocks from which mi­cro­scope slides were pre­pared. A great ma­jor­ity of the pho­tographs, blocks and slides were lost from pub­lic sight for more than 55 years. The photos used by the re­search­ers are held by the Na­t­ional Mu­se­um of Health and Med­i­cine in Sil­ver Spring, Md.

The pa­per al­so pub­lishes a “roadmap” to Ein­stein’s brain pre­pared in 1955 by the phy­si­cian Thom­as Har­vey to il­lus­trate the loca­t­ions with­in Ein­stein’s pre­vi­ously whole brain of 240 dis­sect­ed blocks of tis­sue.

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