Georgeanne Lavery asked:
I read that Einstein's brain was normal size, but he had more folds than a normal person. Do the folds help neurons fire faster and join more parts of the brain?
We posed this to the brain panel.
Katie - So, upon Einstein’s death, his brain was removed and it was photographed before being dissected and the majority of the slides are now stored at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington DC. The latest description of the structure of Einstein’s cortex, the outer bit of the brain did suggest that cerebral cortex folding pattern was unusual in areas that might be related to cognition and mathematical reasoning. And it also had a slightly large area of one side of the hand control region which was thought to be linked to his violin playing.
Hannah - I heard that when he died, they performed this autopsy and there's some controversy about whether or not he did actually donate his body for medical research. They performed this autopsy and they fixed his brain with formalin and they cut it into 240 blocks, really small blocks and basically scattered Einstein brain blocks around the world to different researchers to study. Is that true?
Katie - That sound like that was largely what happened. I think the main researcher that had taken part in the dissection, he kept a lot of them, but he certainly did lend out slides and some of the tissue samples which is why not all of them are entirely accounted for today. We’ve often, I think over time, a lot of times when somebody who’s been seen as having a superior intelligence dies, people have taken their brain to try and have a look at what makes somebody really, really intelligent. I think that's an interesting idea, but a lot of people have cautioned about the fact that everyone’s brain is slightly different. And so, by looking at somebody’s brain, you can tell whether the thing that looks slightly different on their brain to someone else’s brain is actually functionally relevant whether it actually determines what made them more intelligent or what made them really good at a certain thing than anyone else.
Hannah - Suppose, humans are always looking for patterns aren’t they? They always want to see some reasons, some kind of basis. Yeah, Bill.
Bill - If Einstein was particularly good at algebra and mathematics and well, maybe he wasn’t just so good at something else, but do we even know which part of the brain is involved in algebra? I don’t think so.
Katie - Generally, as we’re moving away from understanding particular discreet regions of the brain as being involved in doing this exact task and understanding the brain more is networks of different areas which work together and that sometimes these networks will overlap and sometimes they'll be slightly different. That it’s actually the recruitment of lots of different brain areas that give rise to abilities to do things.
Hannah - I have heard that Einstein’s brain may have had more glial cells. So, these are kind of the supporting cells that help secrete factors like cholesterol for example that help nerve cells to connect with each other. This is obviously just one observation from one study that's been published, but do you think that could be true?
Bill - Again, I find it hard to think that Einstein was more brilliant at every aspect of every bit of life than everyone else. He had certain fantastic abilities that's for sure and he was a good violin player. But was he fantastic at everything? No. You're probably more fantastic at some things than he was. Maybe you could dance better than he could. And so, there's a part of your brain that maybe we should fix and scatter around the world when you die.