clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Surprise! Albert Einstein's brain was unlike the rest of ours, new study says

Detailed analysis of previously unpublished pictures of Albert Einstein's brain taken shortly after his death has concluded that while the shape and size were fairly normal, it was unlike the average brain in nearly every other way.

"Although the overall size and asymmetrical shape of Einstein's brain were normal, the prefrontal, somatosensory, primary motor, parietal, temporal and occupital cortices were extraordinary," according to Dean Falk, a Florida State University anthropologist who just concluded a study that was published Friday in the journal Brain.

When the famed "father of physics" died in 1955, his brain was removed, fixed and photographed from various angles, then cut into 240 blocks and slides to study it. The study notes that "at the time, a road map was drawn that illustrates the location within the brain of each block and its associated slides."

According to a report in USA Today, 14 of the photographs were recently found by the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Md. They were included in a donation from the estate of Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who took the photos.

"After the photos were taken," the newspaper said, "the brain itself was cut into 240 separate blocks for analysis, most of which remain at the University Medical Center in Princeton, N.J., where Einstein's brain was taken after he died." What happened to the other sections is not known.

The Dana Foundation in 2001 published a vivid recounting of Einstein's death and what was at that time known about his brain. "The death watch for Albert Einstein began with his collapse from a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm on April 13, 1955. Two days later he was moved from his house at 112 Mercer Street to Princeton Hospital. In the hospital he spoke with his son, Hans Albert, often declined morphine, called for writing materials, and announced, “It is time to go. I will do it elegantly.” On April 18, following a few words in German and two last breaths, Einstein died at age 76. Later that morning, Dr. Thomas Harvey (with Einstein’s executor, Otto Nathan, in attendance) performed the autopsy, which revealed “an abdomen full of blood” from the fatal breach of Einstein’s aorta. The brain and other internal organs were removed for gross inspection. The viscera were returned to the body, which was cremated in Trenton. To this day no one knows where Albert Einstein’s ashes lie."

The new study is part of a long journey to use Einstein's brain to explain the workings of the human brain in general and what makes genius.

"To the extent currently possible, unusual features of Einstein’s brain are tentatively interpreted in light of what is known about the evolution of higher cognitive processes in humans," the study said.

It noted that "Einstein’s brain has an extraordinary prefrontal cortex, which may have contributed to the neurological substrates for some of his remarkable cognitive abilities. The primary somatosensory and motor cortices near the regions that typically represent face and tongue are greatly expanded in the left hemisphere. Einstein’s parietal lobes are also unusual and may have provided some of the neurological underpinnings for his visuospatial and mathematical skills, as others have hypothesized."

Some earlier reports had mischaracterized the shape of his brain, it said.

Science reported that only six peer-reviewed publications resulted from study of the brain of the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, who came up with the Theory of Relativity and other formulas that explain nature and science.

"Some of these studies did find interesting features in Einstein's brain, including a greater density of neurons in some parts of the brain and a higher than usual ratio of glia (cells that help neurons transmit nerve impulses) to neurons," wrote Science's Michael Balter. Two earlier studies, including one that was also by Falk, "found that Einstein's parietal lobes — possibly linked to his remarkable ability to conceptualize physics problems — had a very unusual pattern of grooves and ridges."

In an interview with Scientific American, Falk explained that "the cerebral cortex, the outside part of the brain, is really important because it’s where we humans do our higher conscious thinking. It’s the most advanced region of the brain. As our ancestors’ brains increased in size, there was a tendency for more convolutions to appear in the cortex. The convolutions are a way of increasing volume in the brain in a closed container like the skull. The convolutions are also important because they may be indicative of the extent of connections beneath the brain’s surface. In some cases, the grooves that delimit the convolutions , the sulci, may even define a specific functional area."

The study's major contribution may be in kick-starting more studies, Sandra Witelson, a behavioural neuroscientist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, who discovered that the parietal operculum is missing from Einstein’s brain, told Nature. “It makes clear the location and accessibility of photographs and slides of Einstein's brain,” she says. “This may serve as an incentive for other investigations of Einstein's brain, and ultimately of any consequences of its anatomical variations.”

Falk collaborated on the study with neurologist Frederick Lepore of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, New Brunswick, N.J., and Adrianne Noe, director of the museum.

EMAIL:, Twitter: Loisco