How Albert Einstein's Brain Worked

Marian Diamond and Albert Einstein's Brain
Who needs socks when you might have more glial cells?
Who needs socks when you might have more glial cells?
Lucien Aigner/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As the story goes, when Albert Einstein was born, his mother was positively flabbergasted by her son's large and angular head [source: Hayden]. But when Einstein died, his brain was no larger than that of any other man his age. Thomas Harvey weighed it as part of the autopsy, and the organ clocked in at 2.7 pounds (1.22 kilograms) [source: Hotz]. Harvey had the brain photographed, and then the brain was sectioned into approximately 240 pieces and preserved in celloidin, a common technique in the preservation and study of brains [source: Montagne].

Harvey would go on to send small slivers of the brain to doctors and scientists around the world whose work he found intriguing. The hand-picked experts were to report their findings back to Harvey, and then the work would be published so that the world could know what went on inside the brain of a genius.

Harvey and the world were in for a long wait. Einstein's brain was of a normal size, and he appeared to have a normal number of average-size brain cells. Harvey persevered in his belief that someone would find something, and whenever a reporter tracked the man down, he would say that he was just a year or so away from publishing something. At one point, Harvey was discovered to be living in Kansas while the brain sat in a jar inside an old cider box behind a beer cooler.

Then, in 1985, Harvey finally had something to report. Dr. Marian Diamond, who worked at the University of California at Berkeley, was studying the brain plasticity of rats and had found that rats in more enriching environments had more robust brains. Specifically, the rats had more glial cells in relation to their neurons, and Diamond wanted to see if Einstein's brain would prove similar.

Glial cells cushion and provide nutrients to the much busier neurons, the brain cells that communicate with each other. In some ways, though, glial cells are like the housekeeping service for the neurons. As neurons communicate, they leave behind trash in the form of potassium ions. The potassium ions pile up outside the neurons, but that trash pile can only go so high before the neurons stop communicating, because there's just no more room for the potassium ion discharge. Glial cells clean up those potassium ions to allow the neurons to fire repeatedly. Glia also soak up other neurotransmitters that might clog the communication lines of the neurons [source: Fields].

When Diamond received her pieces of brain, she compared them against a sample group of 11 other brains. She reported that Einstein did indeed have a higher ratio of glia cells to neurons than other brains, and she hypothesized that the number of glial cells increased because of the high metabolic demand that Einstein put on his neurons [source: Burrell]. In other words, Einstein needed fantastic housekeepers because he made such a mess with all of his amazing thoughts.

­Unfortunately, other scientists thought Diamond's work was a mess as well. For one thing, glial cells continue to divide during a person's life. Though Einstein died at 76, Diamond compared his brain to a control group with an average age of 64, so it's only natural that Einstein might have had more glial cells than these younger men [source: Herskovits]. Additionally, Diamond's control group of brains came from patients at a VA Hospital; while she could say that they had died of non-neurological causes, not much else was known about these men, such as IQ score. Was Einstein being compared to dunces? Another scientist pointed out that Diamond had only provided ratios of one specific measure, while by her own account, there were 28 ways to measure these cells. Diamond admitted that she didn't report scores that didn't prove her point; the scientist claimed that if you measure enough things, you'll find something that can support or disprove any claim [source: Burrell].

Would Einstein's brai­n ever give up its secrets? Turn the page for what Thomas Harvey did next.