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Scientists Get A New Look At Einstein's Brain

Albert Einstein was a smart guy. Everybody knows that. But was there something about the structure of his brain that made it special?

Scientists have been trying to answer that question ever since his death. Previously unpublished photographs of Einstein's brain taken soon after he died were analyzed last week in the journal Brain. The images and the paper provide a more complete anatomical picture and may help shed light on his genius.

Every brain has unique nooks and crannies. Aside from sheer curiosity, examining Einstein's brain could yield scientifically valuable insights. "There are strong links between variation in brain anatomy and variations in intellectual ability, period," says Sandra Witelson, a neuroscientist at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University in Ontario.

The story of how the photographs turned up is interesting in itself. In the hours after Einstein's death in 1955, the autopsy pathologist, Thomas Harvey, took dozens of photographs and dissected the physicist's brain into 240 parts for preservation. Harvey's lab made slides for future study. (For more, see Jon Hamilton's "Einstein's Brain Unlocks Some Mysteries Of The Mind.")

Beginning in the 1980s, researchers started asking Harvey for samples — photos, slides and preserved blocks of the actual brain. Observations began to trickle out. In 1999, Harvey and Witelson discovered that not only did Einstein have abnormally wide parietal lobes — associated with math, vision and spatial perception — he also lacked a groove that runs through that region. Their hypothesis: No groove means more connectivity between neurons.

Over the years, researchers have tried to glean a few facts from whatever samples and photographs they could acquire. In 2009, anthropologist Dean Falk, of Florida State University in Tallahassee, noticed that Einstein had unusually patterned parietal lobes and a structural quirk in his brain common in string players and linked to musical ability. But she just had a handful of photos previously published by Witelson to go on.

Harvey died in 2007. His estate donated a special collection of slide and photo specimens and a road map of the brain to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Md., in 2010. For the first time, Falk and her colleagues had access to a more complete set of evidence.

So what did they find? Well, they analyzed 14 of these photographs and compared the visible parts of Einstein's outer brain with 85 human brains previously described in scientific studies. "Einstein's brain differs from the average human brain," says Falk. "In various parts, it's more convoluted. It's bumpier, and that may be related to an increase in the neurons."

The museum released an iPad app to view the slides back in September.

Witelson says the new analysis and photos may encourage other scientists to take a crack at Einstein's brain. "Einstein's aura lives on," she says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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