A neuroscientist’s life’s work

The International Herald Tribune has a fascinating article on the work of neuroscientist Prof Sandra Witelson.

Witelson is notable for collating the world’s largest ‘brain bank’ of non-diseased human brains.

She is particularly interested in examining how brain structure relates to mental function, and particularly in sex differences between men and women.

Her research has turned up some intriguing differences between the structures of male and female brains, usually not obviously visible on brain scans, as they are at the cellular level and only in specific areas.

Witelson also got the chance to study a particularly exceptional brain:

It was Witelson’s 1999 study of Albert Einstein’s brain that made headlines by revealing some remarkable features overlooked by other neuroscientists: the parietal lobe, the region responsible for visual thinking and spatial reasoning, was 15 percent larger than average, and it was structured as one distinct compartment, instead of the usual two compartments separated by the Sylvian fissure.

Witelson is continuing her analysis of Einstein’s brain, but with a histological study, probing features of the cellular geography in the parietal lobe, like the packing density of his neurons.

These specimens of Einstein’s brain came to Witelson via Dr. Thomas Harvey, the pathologist at the Princeton hospital where Einstein died in 1955. Shortly thereafter Harvey stole away with the great man’s gray matter (and lost his job as a result).

Now 94, Harvey has received requests for Einstein’s brain from many neuroscientists and turned most of them down. But hearing of Witelson’s extensive brain bank, he sent her a handwritten note by fax in 1995 asking simply, “Do you want to study the brain of Albert Einstein?”

She sent a fax back: “Yes.”

Link to ‘A neuroscientist’s life’s work: Analyzing brains to study structure and cognition’.

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