Considerations Regarding the Study of Einstein's Brain


Simon D. Murray, MD: Was studying his brain by taking it out and cutting it up in a million pieces similar to taking a telephone system, pulling out 1 part of the computer, disconnecting all the wires from the phone system, and pulling it out and kind of looking at it alone, without connections?

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: You’re reflecting the neuroscientific biases that we all operate under in the early part of the 21st century. At the end of the day, if you say, “Fred, is that really what this is about— the surface of the brain?” Or if you had to bet on something as an explanation for Einstein’s intellect, I’d say it’s the wiring, the internal wiring, and not the cell count. Dr Thomas Harvey’s work, and the people who worked with him, counted neurons and supporting cells. No one ever looked at what we now call the connectome.

Simon D. Murray, MD: You did. You looked at the corpus callosum, isn’t that right?

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: Well, yes. We backed into it in a gross way. I didn’t do it, but it was Dr Weiwei Men, and he was able to take those photographs of the brain. The corpus callosum is the bundle of fibers that connect the hemispheres. It’s the largest commissure in the human brain. Dr Men was able to take a computer system and take these old photographs and standardize a volumetric measurement of the size of the corpus callosum and compare it with normal brains. He found that Albert Einstein’s corpus callosum was larger than normal for his cohort of 70-some-year-old men, but it’s also larger than that of people who are younger. That does allude, in a way, to the internal wiring. If Einstein’s corpus callosum was greater, you do have a hint saying that maybe the axons, the dendrites, those fibers that connect at the neurons—maybe there was something exceptional about those. It’s never been quantitated.

Simon D. Murray, MD: Yeah. Theoretically, though, it’s intriguing that might be where the money is.

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: Well, if you’re saying, “Why is this guy so blindingly bright—such a creative genius?” And possibly structure underlies function. The structure of your brain has something to do with your intellect. That may be an unanswerable question in the year 2019. But certainly, you would want to look at the axons and the dendrites that connect. Dr Men looked at it grossly, but nobody, with all those slides that were available, ever really looked at the axons and dendrites. Some of stains do show them, but no one quantitated and said, “You know what? That layer 5 dendrite of his parietal cortex is longer than that of a human norm.” No one has ever done that.

Simon D. Murray, MD: Was it possible to do this late stage?

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: You could.

Simon D. Murray, MD: Were cells preserved well enough to do that?

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: Sure. You can do it in the comfort of your own home. There’s an Einstein Brain [Atlas] mobile app. The National Museum of Health and Medicine needed to digitize those slides, and they didn’t have the money. So they floated it with a firm that said, “We’ll do that, but you’ve got to sell it.” So you can go to iTunes and buy the Einstein brain app and look at those slides. Possibly, you could measure those. I don’t know exactly how you compare them with norms. They have their own scale. But yes, that could be done. Again, this is not the royal road to neuroscientific insight in the current time. The connectome is, but not the connectome of 1 lone genius.

Simon D. Murray, MD: Right.

Transcript edited for clarity.

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