Inside Einstein's brain

Of course it was bigger than yours. But now we can show it was a different shape, too

New research comparing the characteristics of Einstein's brain with that of four men of similar age has found structural differences. Parts of his brain were found to be larger than those of the others, while other scientists have found he had more brain cells.

The brain of the great mathematician and physicist, who died aged 76 in 1955, has long fascinated researchers, not least because while Einstein's body was cremated, his brain was saved for scientific study.

Other researchers have found that Einstein's brain possessed a greater number of glial cells for each neurone, suggesting his brain needed and used more energy. As a result it may have generated more processing ability. The job of glial cells is to provide support and protection for neurones.

Previous research has shown that the density of neurones in Einstein's brain was greater, too, and the cerebral cortex thinner than the brains to which it was compared.

Einstein's brain has also been found to have had an unusual pattern of grooves in an area thought to be involved in mathematical skills. It was 15 per cent wider than the other brains, suggesting that the combined effect of the differences may be better connections between nerve cells involved in mathematical abilities.

The latest research, due to be published this week, was conducted by scientists in the United States and Argentina.

"Einstein's astrocytic processes showed larger sizes and higher numbers of interlaminar terminal masses," say the researchers.

Exactly what effects these differences could have is not clear, and the researchers caution that what they found could simply be a sign of ageing.

The researchers also suggest that the structure of Einstein's brain may not have been unique, and that other people may have something similar, but never get the chance to use it.

"Perhaps individuals with 'special' brains and minds are more frequent than suspected. They just may go unnoticed due to socio-cultural conditions or early potential being cancelled following exposure to unwanted health or child-rearing hazards during gestation and early childhood, or lack of an adequate child-raising environment," they say.

And there's hope for us all. The researchers say that the brain structure should not be seen as a marker of intelligence in isolation. "In a species with a heavily socially moulded brain and mind, such as humans, the full expression of an individual special aptitude depends on multiple genetic and environmental factors."

The differences

1 According to previous researchers Einstein's cerebral cortex was thinner and his brain 15 per cent wider than average for a man of his age. He also had a greater than average number of nervous tissue cells called glials.

2 His brain tissue had larger sizes and greater numbers of terminal masses - or nodules. Exactly how these affected his brain function is not clear - and they might even be a sign of ageing.

3 The nodules, shown expanded might be found in other people, say researchers, but they caution that even if people have similar brains, they may never get the chance to fulfil their potential.