Not-So-Simple Minds

Science  15 Sep 2000:
Vol. 289, Issue 5486, pp. 1878
DOI: 10.1126/science.289.5486.1878a

The investigation of brains of people with outstanding abilities has long fascinated neuroanatomists, philosophers, and scientists in other disciplines, as well as the public [a topic discussed in Wang's Essay on Science and Society (Science‘s Compass, 1 Sept., p. 1477)]. In the ongoing search for an explanation of genius, Witelson, Kigar, and Harvey analyzed the morphology of Albert Einstein's brain, which they described in an article in Lancet (1).

Witelson and colleagues examined photographs of Einstein's brain taken in 1955 (2) and found that there was no parietal operculum, a part of the brain involved in speech. In addition, quantitative measurements (based on calibrated photographs?) revealed that the size of a specific gyral region in the frontal operculum was different in Einstein's brain compared with that of a control group. On the basis of their examination of Einstein's brain (which they describe in their Lancet article as morphologically “exceptional”) and information gathered from several case studies of the brains of outstanding people, such as Carl F. Gauss (1777–1855), Witleson and colleagues suggested that they had found a new criterion for explaining extraordinary intellectual talents. However, their study was based on the “convolutional morphology,” as termed by Critchley in his monograph The Parietal Lobes(3). No data were given on the architectural structure or connections with other areas, the cerebro-arterial topography, or the white matter. As Critchley mentions in his monograph, such features are of equal importance in studying the complex parietal brain.

There is one medical condition—congenital in children or acquired in adults—where maldevelopment or destruction of the operculum (particularly the frontal operculum) is associated with the failure of speech development or a loss of speech. This syndrome in children has been described by Worster-Drought, and in adults by Foix and Chavany and co-workers (4). The former author noticed a correlation of abnormal speech development in children with dysplasias associated with destruction of the operculum.

On the basis of our knowledge of brain development and our own magnetic resonance imaging study of the brain of Gauss (5), we suggest that the abnormality observed in Einstein's brain is most likely responsible for the well-known delay of his speech development and the dyslexic features that accompanied him during his life.

Sometimes we forget how limited our current research is. There is the dialectical saying, “If the human brain would be so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn't.”

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