Motive Behind the Study of Albert Einstein's Brain

SEPTEMBER 10, 2019
MD Magazine

Simon D. Murray, MD: Was there an opportunity to get DNA? Was DNA science available at that time?

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: No. You know, James Watson and Francis Crick, in 1953, they figure out the double helix DNA. And I don’t know, and I remember this autopsy as being done in ’55. As far as preserving DNA to keep it from denaturing, I don’t know when they started to discover that. But what we do know now—or probably only a few years later—is that DNA that’s at room temperature denatures, and you cannot reassemble it. Three billion base pairs in a human genome. So you can’t do what you don’t know about. In the case of Dr Thomas Harvey, he did what was considered state-of-the-art mid-20th-century preservation, which was to soak it into formalin and infuse it with formalin.

Simon D. Murray, MD: And stain it...

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: And stain it. And that brings you to the next point. We’re talking a little about—this particular slice of the pie with myself and Dean Falk is that we’ve looked at the gross cortical anatomy. Harvey didn’t buy into that. He bet by the spring of ’55. He said, “I’m a good conscientious obsessive pathologist. I’m going to photograph this brain in great detail.” Thank God, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to come up with the results that we did. But he’s saying we’re going to cut it into 240 cubes, 240 sections, 240 blocks, and that’s what he did all spring of ’55. Once you do that, you cut those blocks and then you embed them in celloidin, which is kind of like a plastic. It’s like a nitrocellulose. You really lose the sense of the external appearance of the brain. The whole point of embedding those blocks is that then you put them on a microtome and you cut vanishingly thin slices, and you stain them and you look at the microscopic structure. And that’s what Harvey was betting heavily on. If I can look at the actual microscopic structure of the neurons—the astrocytes, the oligos, the blood vessels, the axons and dendrites—maybe I will see an exceptional thing in Einstein’s brain.

Simon D. Murray, MD: I guess his training led him to believe that would be the way to go at the time.

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: I think that’s a good bet. I don’t think gross anatomy of the brain, even at this day. This is a very strange little detour we took with his brain. It’s not a major channel of scientific inquiry. The microscopic picture is that Harvey had trained at the University of Pennsylvania with Frederic “Fritz” Lewy. Fritz Lewy was the guy who discovered the microscopic change in the brain of people with Parkinson disease, called the Lewy Body. I imagine if you spend a year with someone, a Teutonic, Berlin, [Germany]–trained neuropathologist saying, “You’ve got to look at the fine structure,” it probably rubbed off. And he said, “What else would I look at?”

Simon D. Murray, MD: Had there been any brains studied before for genius or for anything like that? Is there a history of any of that before?

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: Yeah. You know, I was thinking about that question. I think you can make a strong case that here in 2013, 2012 when we published, I think we went into level of detail. The closest approach to it that people probably had did in the past, the closest candidate, I would say, was the brain of Vladimir Lenin. Lenin, when he died—I don’t know, was it in the 1930s?—the Soviet Republic said we need to justify the importance of the Soviet system by showing that it was formulated by a super genius, super bright guy. So they hired the power couple of neuropathology from Berlin in the 1930s, Oskar and Cécile Vogt. Some people say they sectioned that brain in 30,000 sections. They came up with a positive result. I suspect they had to have a positive result because if they said, “It just looks like a regular brain,” I don’t know if they would have gotten out of Russia. But they said, “You know, the pyramidal cells, the neurons of the third layer of the cortex of Lenin’s brain are very large.” And there have been disputes about that. But that brain was probably studied with great intensity, but it was microscopic.

As far as anyone looking at the surface of the brain, I think if you go back a century or more, people regarded the surface of the brain the way we would like if we looked at somebody’s large and small intestine trying to say, well, can I tell anything? There are coils, but does it really tell you a lot about the function. Probably the other closest one was the guy, Carl Friedrich Gauss, who was kind of a German polymath, the guy who came up with Gaussian distribution or the magnetic field is measured in Gauss. They studied his brain, and there were a few anomalies. But I don’t think anyone really took it lobe by lobe in the past to say X marks the spot. That’s why this guy was so smart. I don’t think anyone really did that.

Simon D. Murray, MD: What about Walt Whitman’s brain? What happened to that?

Frederick E. Lepore, MD: Well, Edward Anthony Spitzka wrote an atlas in 1906 about exceptional brains, including the brain of Edward Cope, who’s a famous physician. But supposedly Whitman’s brain was 1 of these brains that was collected by the American Philosophical Society to be analyzed, and somebody dropped it on the floor. There’s an apology in this very old monograph. There’s always an interest in what’s between your ears. Can it tell you a little about mind and thought? But it’s kind of a funny literature, and we’re really a throwback study in the sense that we’re not going to tell you that that particular shape of Einstein’s brain made him a genius. All we’re going to tell you—and I have to repeat this, even though you’ll be bored of hearing me say it—all I’m going to tell you is the anatomy is exceptional. And we know that Einstein was exceptional. But is it a causal relationship? We cannot answer that question.

Transcript edited for clarity.

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