A Hands-On Approach to Studying the Brain, Even Einstein’s
By SIOBHAN ROBERTS, New York Times
Published: November 14, 2006
HAMILTON, Ontario — Standing in her vaultlike walk-in refrigerator, Sandra F. Witelson pries open a white plastic tub that looks like an ice cream container. There, soaking in diluted formaldehyde, is a gleaming vanilla-colored brain: the curvy landscape of hills and valleys (the gyri and sulci) that channeled the thoughts of the late mathematician Donald Coxeter, known as the man who saved geometry from near extinction in the 20th century.
“His brain is amazingly plump,” Dr. Witelson says. She ought to know.
Here at McMaster University, where she is a neuroscientist with the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, Dr. Witelson has a collection of 125 brains. They are all from Canadians: business people, professionals, homemakers, and blue- and white-collar workers. By weighing her specimens, calculating their volumes and measuring their proportions, Dr. Witelson (pronounced WIT-il-son) investigates the relationship between brain structure and cognition, a focus of her research for three decades.
It was Dr. Witelson’s 1999 study of Albert Einstein’s brain that made headlines by revealing some remarkable features overlooked by other neuroscientists: the parietal lobe, the region responsible for visual thinking and spatial reasoning, was 15 percent larger than average, and it was structured as one distinct compartment, instead of the usual two compartments separated by the Sylvian fissure.
Dr. Witelson is continuing her analysis of Einstein’s brain, but with a histological study, probing features of the cellular geography in the parietal lobe, like the packing density of his neurons.
These specimens of Einstein’s brain came to Dr. Witelson via Thomas Harvey, the pathologist at the Princeton hospital where Einstein died in 1955. Shortly thereafter Dr. Harvey stole away with the great man’s gray matter (and lost his job as a result).
Now 94, Dr. Harvey has received requests for Einstein’s brain from many neuroscientists and turned most of them down. But hearing of Dr. Witelson’s extensive brain bank, he sent her a handwritten note by fax in 1995 asking simply, “Do you want to study the brain of Albert Einstein?”
She sent a fax back: “Yes.”
Receiving her Ph.D. in neuropsychology from McGill University, in her hometown of Montreal (followed by a postdoctoral fellowship at the New York University School of Medicine), Dr. Witelson began her brain bank early in her career after winning a contract from the National Institutes of Health in 1977. The goal was to study why language capacity is lateralized — that is, represented in the left hemisphere for 90 to 95 percent of people.
Dr. Witelson’s research team sought out donors with metastatic cancer in which the brain was unaffected — people who knew they faced death but were willing to undergo extensive testing while they were alive. So Dr. Witelson’s brain bank not only is the world’s largest collection of “cognitively normal” brains, but also includes a repository of personal data on each person.
Dr. Coxeter, the geometer, died in 2003 at 96. A brain that old is apt to have suffered considerable deterioration from loss of neural matter. But Dr. Coxeter, a lifelong vegetarian who rarely drank alcohol and did headstands every morning, remained intellectually active almost to the end of his life and had the brain of a much younger man. Like Einstein, he had a large parietal lobe.
Dr. Witelson is known not only for her brain bank. She has also been in the forefront of controversial studies on the biological basis of intelligence, sex differences in the brain and sexual orientation.
While her N.I.H. study has yet to yield many answers on why language is lateralized, she said something unexpected “fell out” of the research: marked differences between male and female brains.
In 1995, after a 10-year study, Dr. Witelson published findings showing that on average the packing density of neurons was 12 percent greater in the adult female brain than in the adult male brain in the language region of the temporal lobe. A subsequent study of the frontal lobes, soon to be published, revealed similar sex differences.
On first interpretation, she said, this might lead to the conclusion that a woman’s brain is more tightly packed with neurons simply to make up for the well-documented fact that the average female brain is 10 percent smaller than the male brain.
“But that’s not correct,” she said, “because only some of the cortical layers show the difference.”
Layers 2 and 4, those important in processing the input of information, exhibited the differences in neuron capacity.
“Knowing that,” Dr. Witelson said, “one can ask the question of whether the processing of speech sounds could be related to the anatomy, and in fact that’s what we’re doing now.”
Sex differences also turned up in a number of other studies.
In 2005 Dr. Witelson and her colleagues reported that verbal ability was correlated with brain volume, but more strongly in women than in men. And they announced findings indicating that extremely premature birth affects the brain development of boys more adversely than girls.
Though she says the differences among female and male brains should not be discussed in terms of “better” and “worse,” they cannot be denied.
For that reason, her work was often cited by defenders of the former Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers after his suggestion that innate differences might help explain the gender gap on science faculties.
Interviewed on “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer” on PBS in February 2005, Dr. Witelson said, “If we’re going to try to understand the disparity between the number of women and men in different professions, and this would go for positions way beyond just academia, we have to put all the factors on the table.”
In a recent interview, she said, “It’s clear societal influences are relevant, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that there are also contributing factors from nature.”
Dr. Witelson does not have a female genius in her brain bank. She is considering broadening the demographic, seeking exceptional individuals regardless of age or sex in a wide spectrum of fields: language, music, chess, even professional sports.
She has not met many of the people whose brains she studies. (Dr. Coxeter was an exception.) But the fact that she is handling the essence of their individualism sometimes gives her pause.
“I have to admit,” she said, “when I saw Einstein’s brain, that was a pretty strong feeling. I realized this was the brain that had provided our current conception of the universe.
“I’m not a cardiologist or a nephrologist, so I don’t hold hearts or kidneys, but I don’t think I would get as touched by those organs. On the other hand. I have a bias towards brains.”
Siobhan Roberts is the author of “King of Infinite Space,” a new biography of the mathematician Donald Coxeter.
Einstein's Brain is a 1994 documentary by Kevin Hull following Japanese professor Kenji Sugimoto in his search for Albert Einstein's brain. It is produced by BBC Films, and is currently not available in any commercial format.
This documentary is introduced by a set of titles informing the viewer that Albert Einstein's brain was extracted after his death in 1955 and that it was donated to the Princeton Medical Center. We then meet Kenji Sugimoto, professor of mathematics and science history at the Kinki University of Osaka. In broken English, he describes what Einstein means to him: "Einstein teaches me about love as well as science. Passion, love and science. I love Albert Einstein." Thus, he embarks on a pilgrimage to Princeton to find the legendary cerebrum. Once there, he learns that the brain has been misplaced, and the film documents his subsequent travels across the United States to recover it. The last person known to handle the item is Thomas Stoltz Harvey, a man it proves difficult to find. One lead sends Sugimoto to the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, where a former associate of Harvey's, Dr. Harry Zimmerman, informs the unlikely pilgrim that the man he is seeking in fact is dead.
Sugimoto next tracks down Einstein's granddaughter by adoption, Evelyn Einstein. She tells him she has reason to believe she actually is biologically related to Einstein, and has been in dialogue with an institute to compare her DNA to that of the late scientist's brain. The brain sample used for this was sent from Harvey's residence in Lawrence, Kansas, giving Sugimoto a possible lead to the brain's current whereabouts. Once in Kansas, it appears Zimmerman was misinformed; Thomas Harvey is still very much alive. Sugimoto finally finds the brain (which is stored in three jars in a closet), and even acquires a small sample to bring back to Japan. He celebrates by singing karaoke in a local bar, and closes the documentary with a few more contemplations around his idol: "I am born in Nagasaki two years after bomb. Einstein is made responsible for the bomb, but I do not blame him. I still love Albert Einstein."
The question of veracity
Because of its somewhat absurd premise and execution, Einstein's Brain's veracity has often been questioned. The notion of a brain of such fame being misplaced and subsequently found by a bumbling eccentric has by many been found too outrageous to be true, but aside from the regular narrativization of material found in documentaries, very little actually indicates forgery.
Kai Michel's article "Wo ist Einsteins Denkorgan?" ("Where is Einstein's Brain?"), published by Die Zeit in December of 2004, shows just how easy it is to assume the film is a forgery. This article revolves around professor Michael Hagner of ETH Zürich, who after showing a group of students the film in question informs them that this is all fiction and that Kenji Sugimoto is a character. But after a phone call to a colleague he is informed that Sugimoto in fact is real, and that truth in fact is stranger than fiction. Or as Hagner himself puts it, "Nichts ist absurder als die Realität".
The documentary is lent further credibility by Michael Paterniti's 2000 book Driving Mr. Albert: A Trip Across America With Einstein's Brain, where the author tells the story of how he chauffeured Dr. Harvey across the US to deliver the brain to Evelyn Einstein. His path crosses with several persons who appeared in Einstein's Brain, including director Kevin Hull and Evelyn Einstein, and at one point he even travels to Japan and meets Sugimoto, who proudly shows off his brain sample and invites him out to a night of karaoke. If the story of Sugimoto and Harvey is a hoax, it's an elaborate one.
Other evidence suggests that Einstein's brain surviving intact must be a hoax. In the 1990s, Michael Cammer, formerly Director of Light Microscopy and Image Analysis at the Analytical Imaging Facility at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, saw an old microscope slide of human brain clearly labeled as Einstein's. It came from the laboratory of Dr. William T. Norton, then a Professor of Neurology, who had the slide of Einstein's brain in his laboratory. The story circulating through Neurology was that Einstein's brain was distributed to researchers. Therefore, at least one of the stories has to be a hoax.