DEPARTMENT OF MEDICAL HISTORY
Department of medical history
The exceptional brain of Albert Einstein
Sandra F Witelson, Debra L Kigar, Thomas Harvey In recent decades, there have been major advances in neuroscience at the behavioural and neural levels, but the long-standing issue of the neurobiological basis of variation in intelligence remains unresolved.1 Around the turn of the 20th century, much attention was focused on anatomical correlates of intelligence through detailed necropsy case studies of the brains of outstanding people, such as mathematician Karl F Gauss or physician William Osler.2,3 By 1907, Spitzka4 had published an extensive monograph that summarised 137 case ...view middle of the document...
The development of computerised imaging technologies has made it possible to obtain quantitative measurements of brain anatomy in vivo with magnetic resonance scanning, and renewed attention has been directed to the investigation of structure-function relations in the general population. The studies have varied greatly in their methodology, and, although the results are inconsistent, they do point to a low, but statistically significant, positive correlation between brain
Lancet 1999; 353: 2149–53
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada (S F Witelson PhD, D L Kigar, T Harvey MD) Correspondence to: Dr Sandra F Witelson, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences, Faculty of Health Sciences, McMaster University, HSC 3G53, 1200 Main Street West, Hamilton, Ontario L8N 3Z5, Canada (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)
volume and IQ scores.8 Further work is needed to reconcile these results with the inconsistent findings on brain weight in the earlier case reports. Brain volume and weight are not perfectly correlated, and imaging does not provide measures of brain weight.
The case of Albert Einstein
Resolving the neurobiological substrate of intelligence may be facilitated by the comparison of extreme cases with control groups within the framework of specific hypotheses. Albert Einstein is one of the intellectual giants of recorded history, and the preservation of his brain provides the possibility of an important case study. Since Einstein’s death, there has been no report of the gross anatomy of his brain. Here we present the first such study. Our investigation of Einstein’s brain was guided theoretically on the basis of current information of cortical localisation of cognitive functions. The generation and manipulation of three-dimensional spatial images and the mathematical representation of concepts would appear to be essential cognitive processes in the development of Einstein’s theory of relativity.9 Einstein’s own description of his scientific thinking was that “. . . words do not seem to play any role”, but there is “associative play” of “more or less clear images” of a “visual and muscular type”.10 Visuospatial cognition,11,12 mathematical ideation,11 and imagery of movement13 are mediated predominantly by right and left posterior parietal regions. We hypothesised that the parietal lobes in particular might show anatomical differences between Einstein’s brain and the brains of controls.
Preservation of Einstein’s brain
Einstein died from a ruptured aneurysm of the abdominal aorta in 1955 at the age of 76 years. His medical history has been well documented, and his biographies show that he was mentally adept to the end of his life.9 Within 7 hours of death, his brain was removed at necropsy, fresh weight was measured, perfusion of 10% formalin by injection into the internal carotid arteries was carried out, and the whole brain was then freely suspended in 10%...