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The Matter of Einstein's Brain
Unique architecture may play a role in Einstein's creativity and ability to solve complex problems in physics.
Neuroscience chatter this week has focused on a scientific celebrity--or at least, that celebrity's post-mortem brain. After Albert Einstein died in 1955, he donated his brain to science. It was then sliced into 240 blocks and distributed to nearly two dozen researchers. Many of those specimens were lost, somehow, someway in the years since. But several photos, taken from multiple and unique angles before the brain was dissected and sent off into the world remain. And some scientists are attempting to try to understand Einstein's unique brand of intelligence by studying those photographic artifacts.
Earlier this month, Dean Falk, an anthropologist from Florida State University, and colleagues published a paper in Brain about some interesting anatomical features of Einstein's cortex, based on the photos. By comparing Einstein's brain with 85 other brains, they found a few peculiarities. One, despite Einstein's extraordinary intelligence and cognitive abilities, his brain, at only 1,230 grams, was remarkably average sized. This seems to fly in the face of the old notion that "bigger is better" when it comes to the cortex and intelligence.
But more interesting to Falk and her colleagues was the unusual topography of Einstein's cortex. While everyone has folds in the brain--sulci, or depressions in the brain, and gyri, or ridges--Einstein had an usually high number of folds and grooves. And those observed were "exceptionally complicated in their convolutions."
Falk suggests that unique architecture may play a role in Einstein's creativity and ability to solve complex problems in physics.
Of course, this isn't the first study to look at Einstein's brain. There have been a few others. And one in particular, now more than 30 years old, is of great interest to me.
Back in 1975, Marian Diamond and colleagues, published "On the Brain of a Scientist: Albert Einstein," in Experimental Neurology. This particular study was actually based on some of the pathological samples of Einstein's brain--not just photographs. In the study, they counted the number of neurons and glial cells, or non-neuronal brain cells that help provide support and protection for the neural cells in a few different regions. And they found something very curious. In Area 39, part of the parietal cortex thought to be involved with language and complex reasoning, Einstein had a much lower ratio of neurons to glial cells when compared to 11 other brains. Simply stated, Einstein had more glial cells for every neuron in this brain region than other folks.
Why is this so interesting to me? Because one of the "transformative" new research lines that stood out for Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), at this year's Neuroscience 2012 conference was our changing understanding of glial cell function.
"We're learning that glial cells are not just involved in providing energy to neurons like we thought," she told me. "Scientists are learning that they have much more executive function than we thought."
She mentioned that different presentations at the conference discussed how glial cells can "prune" or "clean up" excess synapses and also that they can be primed to produce early genes associated with learning processes. "We are learning they do much, much more than we once thought," she said. "Not just neurons can produce changes to behavior. Glial cells have receptivity to stimuli, like to stress and drugs, and that can affect behavior."
Given Einstein's excess of these cells, it makes me wonder if glial cells might play a role in intelligence and problem solving as well.
Diamond's paper suggested that Einstein's low neuron-to-glial-cell ratio might indicate that Einstein's brain just needed more energy--the glial cells were feeding his intelligence and conceptual abilities. Perhaps he was simply a more efficient thinker because he had extra metabolic resources always at the ready. Or maybe, now that we're learning glial cells have more "executive function" than once thought, those extra cells gave him cognitive advantages in other ways. It's an interesting idea--and one I hope will be pursued moving forward.
Of course, there's only so much we can take away from photographs and post-mortem samples--and any anatomical difference observed even in the brain of someone like Albert Einstein is born from a unique combination of nature and nurture. Still, I find this line of research fascinating.
What do you think--or hope--we can learn from studying the brains of our great thinkers?
Photo credit: bokicbo/Shutterstock.com
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.
- A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
- Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
- The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
Neil deGrasse Tyson wants to go ice fishing on Europa<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="GLGsRX7e" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4790eb8f0515e036b24c4195299df28"> <div id="botr_GLGsRX7e_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/GLGsRX7e-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/GLGsRX7e-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Water Vapor Above Europa’s Surface Deteced for First Time<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9c4abc8473e1b89170cc8941beeb1f2d"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/WQ-E1lnSOzc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Answering the question of who you are is not an easy task. Let's unpack what culture, philosophy, and neuroscience have to say.
- Who am I? It's a question that humans have grappled with since the dawn of time, and most of us are no closer to an answer.
- Trying to pin down what makes you you depends on which school of thought you prescribe to. Some argue that the self is an illusion, while others believe that finding one's "true self" is about sincerity and authenticity.
- In this video, author Gish Jen, Harvard professor Michael Puett, psychotherapist Mark Epstein, and neuroscientist Sam Harris discuss three layers of the self, looking through the lens of culture, philosophy, and neuroscience.
The newly discovered galaxies are 62x bigger than the Milky Way.
- Two recently discovered radio galaxies are among the largest objects in the cosmos.
- The discovery implies that radio galaxies are more common than previously thought.
- The discovery was made while creating a radio map of the sky with a small part of a new radio array.