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Beyond Einstein’s brain: the anatomy of genius

When Albert Einstein died in 1955, his brain was removed, weighed and measured, preserved in formalin, photographed, and sectioned for microscopic study. Although we often think of technologic breakthroughs as coming from corporations or industry sectors, ideas come from individual brains. Human brain tissue is the source of the invention, conceptualization, and implementation of new technologies.

Einstein was the preeminent genius of his era and one of the greatest scientists of all time, on par with Leonardo Da Vinci and Isaac Newton (whose brains were not preserved). What can we learn from the anatomy of Einstein’s brain that might lead to the creation of more new ideas and advanced technologies? In 1955, the neurosciences were in their infancy. In 1949 Moniz was awarded the Nobel Prize for the frontal lobotomy in which white matter connections of the brain are severed with an “ice pick” instrument, a procedure now considered barbaric by modern medicine.

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Neuroscience has advanced by leaps and bounds since then, and recent insights have been made on the uniqueness of Albert Einstein’s brain.

The human brain: cerebrum, cerebellum, brain stem, cranial nerves, and the skull. Medical illustration by Patrick J. Lynch via Wikimedia Commons.

Although the size and weight of Einstein’s brain were within the normal range, there were anatomic and cellular differences. His right frontal lobe (the seat of higher thinking) was more convoluted with four gyri (folds) instead of the normal three. The right and left parietal lobes (associated with spatial ability and conceptualization) were asymmetric. The Sylvian fissure on each side was shorter than normal, and the corpus callosum (the white matter connecting the right and left sides of the brain) was thicker than normal. This meant that there was more connectedness and communication between different areas of Einstein’s brain.

Einstein was a theoretical physicist. His great breakthroughs did not come from physical laboratory experiments but rather from conceptualization and thought experiments. As a young man, his daily work was at a patent office where his job was to imagine if concepts drawn on paper could be practically implemented.

His idea for the Special Theory of Relativity came to him as he rode his bicycle towards a street lamp. It dawned on him that the speed of light had to be the same for all observers, regardless of the velocity of either the light source or the observer.

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”—Albert Einstein. Image by Mark Hom.

In other thought experiments he imagined himself riding a light wave, inside an elevator in space (where he realized that gravity and acceleration are the same force), in free fall with no gravitational forces felt, or on a train approaching the speed of light. Einstein’s thought experiments always had to appeal to his intuitive sense and visual reasoning.

While neuron density in the neocortex differentiates the human brain from lower animals, a distinguishing characteristic of Einstein’s brain was how the different lobes and the two hemispheres were more interconnected. When Einstein had an idea it traveled through many different areas in his brain, harmonizing all aspects: visual, spatial, mathematical, verbal, and intuitive. Although current education focuses on rote memorization of learning standards, Einstein’s thinking could best be described as daydreaming.

Microscopic studies revealed that Einstein’s brain was packed with more glial cells, the non-neural brain cells which support neurons in several ways. Glial cells produce the insulating myelin that improves conduction of nerve impulses. Glial cells also supplying neurons with nutrient energy. Not surprisingly, Einstein’s brain was more energetic and had excellent “wiring”.

Recent advances in the neurosciences have revealed the importance of brain energetics. As with other vital organs in the body, the brain is powered by intracellular mitochondria, the dynamos that convert food and blood sugar into cell energy.

It had long been a mystery as to why humans require sleep. Wouldn’t we be more productive if we never had to sleep? However, most of us require seven to eight hours of sleep. Why is that? The mechanism of sleep has to do with the uniqueness of brain metabolism. The brain relies chiefly on blood sugar and does not burn fat. It was known that the brain also contained a limited amount of glycogen (polymerized glucose), but far less than what is in our muscles or liver. It turns out that the brain burns through this limited supply of glycogen during waking hours. Sleep allows us to rebuild these glycogen stores, to literally recharge our brains with energy. Without adequate sleep, we are running our brains at low power. Chronic sleep deprivation (a problem of the overstimulated modern age) impairs learning, memory, concentration, and cognitive performance. You are more apt to make mistakes, get injured, or have motor vehicle accidents.

Understanding brain mitochondria has the hope of unlocking the mysteries of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), and traumatic brain injury.

Improved resolution in medical imaging: Computed Tomography (CT), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), and Positron Emission Tomography (PET), means that we can non-invasively examine detailed brain anatomy and physiology without craniotomy or autopsy. This means we can study the brains of living geniuses. There won’t be a problem finding volunteers; the only problem might be finding someone on par with Albert Einstein.

For us mere mortals, we can emulate Einstein by using more regions of our brains by combining imagination, visualization, conceptualization, art, music, language, diagrams, mathematics, and logic. Daydreaming and creativity should be encouraged. And if we are to learn more about brain diseases we will have to understand more about mitochondrial metabolism and brain energetics.

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