Grey matter in a white bucket

The first brain I saw came in a white bucket, swimming in formalin for preservation purposes. While we had grown blase about most parts of the dead body at medical school, this giant walnut thing was uncomfortably close to home. Looking at what is arguably the most irreplaceable part of the human anatomy made me feel mortal.

More worryingly, its parts looked impossible to tell apart for exam purposes. How were we going to learn to distinguish the thalamus (egg-shaped grey blob) from the hypothalamus (fingertip-sized blob below the thalamus)? Seeing any dead brain can inspire awe, but what if it belonged to one of the greatest geniuses of the 20th century?

Albert Einstein agreed to have his brain removed after death, knowing that the grey matter that discovered the theory of relativity would attract scientific curiosity. In 1953 he died, aged 76 and mentally intact, from a ruptured aortic aneurysm. Within seven hours his brain was floating in formalin.

And last week it was revealed that his brain anatomy was just as exceptional as his intellectual gifts. Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario compared Einstein's brain with those of 35 other brains from male research volunteers, known to be of normal intelligence. It was also compared with the brains of eight men in his age group, and those of 56 women.

The study, reported in The Lancet, showed that his brain was unique in two ways. First, he was missing a groove - part of a feature known as the Sylvian fissure - that should have run up and into a part of the brain called the inferior parietal lobule. This meant a lump of brain that should have been separated by a groove wasn't. It's possible that Einstein's brain had generated a mass of inter-connections in this area.

Second, the researchers found that his brain was 15 percent wider in this region than the other brains studied. The parietal part of the brain is involved in maths reasoning and visual-spatial thinking - both vital components for working out that e=mc2. Einstein's own description of his scientific thinking was that "words do not seem to play any role". Instead he described images of a "visual and muscular type".

But the idea that there may be measurable physical differences between brains that might reflect intelligence is not a politically cor rect one. The debate over a quantitative measure of intellect continues - with IQ tests being distrusted as markers and condemned as agents of social injustice. Psychologists have devised numerous other measures of intelligence - some stress purely intellectual aspects, others the ability to solve problems and process information. As arguments rage over what intelligence is exactly, parents buy books that promise to enhance their children's intellect, and fret over what is the best brain food. While there is no quick way to become another Einstein, there is evidence that using your brain improves your cognitive ability.

Intervention to help counter disadvantage in childhood is best done early. A study reported in Science earlier this year found that preschool children who attended a day programme with game-like learning (such as measuring ingredients and baking cookies), developed a 17-point IQ advantage over children from equally poor homes who didn't attend. The researchers concluded that early stimulation leads to lasting physical changes in the brain.

New imaging techniques offer the opportunity to see just which bit of the brain is involved in a given activity. Dr Sandra Witelson, one of the authors of the Lancet paper, says that a study published in Science involving magnetic resonance imaging supports her team's findings. This study, from Paris, showed that the maths part of the brain, the bit that "lights up" when people are doing mathematical reasoning, is the same area that is especially well-developed in Einstein's brain.

"Every brain is different from each other, like faces are different, but Einstein's brain is unique," Dr Witelson says. "We know two facts - that the Sylvian fissure anatomy in his brain was unique and that he was extraordinary in the psychological realm. We can't prove one was the cause of the other."

Meanwhile anyone fancying themselves a genius should donate their brain to the McMaster research team. Ordinary people can do the same, to act as a control group. I made the mistake of asking Dr Witelson if Einstein's brain is kept in a white bucket floating in formalin. "I don't think that's relevant" she says. Which suggests - death being a great leveller - it probably is.

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