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Einstein's big brain shows size matters

  • Article by: Melissa Healy Los Angeles Times
  • October 12, 2013 - 2:56 PM

Albert Einstein had a colossal corpus callosum. And when it comes to this particular piece of neural real estate, it’s pretty clear that size matters.

The corpus callosum carries electrical signals between the brain’s right and left hemispheres. Stretching nearly the full length of the brain from behind the forehead to the nape of the neck, the corpus callosum is the dense network of neural fibers that make brain regions with very different functions work together.

Chances are, that brawny bundle of white matter is part of what made Einstein’s mind so phenomenal, said researchers who have been studying the genius’ brain. When the corpus callosum works well, the human brain is a marvel of social, spatial and verbal reasoning. When it malfunctions — as it appears to do in autism, fetal alcohol syndrome and certain genetic disorders, as well as after traumatic brain injury — the effect on cognition can be disastrous.

Brawn of his brain

Even when he died at 76, Einstein’s corpus callosum was a veritable superhighway of connectivity, researchers reported in the journal Brain. Not only was it thicker than the corpora callosa of 15 elderly healthy males, it was also thicker at five key crossings than those of 52 young, healthy men.

The analysis was led by Florida State University evolutionary anthropologist Dean Falk and Weiwei Men, a physicist from East China Normal University. Last year, they were co-authors of a report that offered a remarkably detailed look at the organ’s surface. The photos even revealed evidence of Einstein’s lifelong love of playing the violin — a large “knob” on the surface of the primary motor cortex, where the left hand is usually represented.

The new analysis showed the brawn of Einstein’s corpus callosum at the splenium. That’s a region that facilitates communication among the parietal, temporal and occipital lobes. (The parietal and occipital lobes are key to conducting mathematical operations.) The splenium also keeps those regions in touch with the brain’s intellectual command center, the prefrontal cortex.

‘Enhanced communications’

Earlier studies of Einstein’s brain found some regions were just plain bigger than those of normal people. But, the authors wrote, “Our findings suggest that Einstein’s extraordinary cognition … also involved enhanced communications routes between at least some parts of his two cerebral hemispheres.”

The report underscores that the ways in which we use our brains may matter more as we age, said Peter Tse, a Dartmouth College neuroscientist who has explored the underpinnings of artistic, scientific and mathematical creativity. Tse noted that, while Einstein’s brain was much better connected than those of similarly aged men, it was not so different than those of young and healthy controls.

That might reflect the fact that Einstein exercised his brain strenuously, forestalling atrophy that comes with age. “It might just be that Einstein’s brain was more like a young person’s brain in that sense,” Tse said. “The brain is like a muscle, in the sense that neural circuits that are used often tend to change in their organization.” That, in turn, may shape connective tissues such as the corpus callosum, he said.

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