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Deep, Dark Secrets of His and Her Brains

Sandra Witelson had studied scores of brains looking for gender differences. Then she found one that made a difference: Einstein's.

June 16, 2005|By Robert Lee Hotz | Times Staff Writer

HAMILTON, Canada — The invitation curled from her fax machine, a courtly question scrawled above the signature of a man whose name she did not recognize.

"Would you be willing to collaborate with me on studying the brain of Albert Einstein?"

It was signed Thomas Harvey. Sandra Witelson did not hesitate.

She wrote "yes" on the piece of paper and faxed it back.

"It never occurred to me that it might be a joke," she recalled. "I knew that Albert Einstein's brain had been preserved and that it was somewhere where someone was looking after it."

For 40 years, Harvey, a retired pathologist from Princeton, N.J., had been the quixotic custodian of the 20th century's most famous brain.

In 1955, he had conducted a routine autopsy of Einstein after the 76-year-old physicist died at Princeton Hospital. The remains were to be cremated. Harvey, however, decided to preserve the organ responsible for the theory of relativity and the principle of the atomic bomb.

It was not such an unusual thing to do. Einstein's ophthalmologist had removed the scientist's eyeballs and put them in a safe-deposit box. Earlier acquisitive anatomists had preserved Galileo's finger, Haydn's head and Napoleon's penis.

For Harvey, however, more than morbid curiosity was at work. He believed that the slippery worms of Einstein's brain tissue, pickled in warm formalin, embodied some clue to the mystery of intelligence. He held on to that hope through 40 years of indecision.

Eventually, it led the soft-spoken Quaker to Witelson, a raven-haired Canadian psychologist with a taste for black leather and red showgirl nails.

She had brains, dozens of them — the largest collection of normal brains in the world.

When Witelson began acquiring human brains, sex was the last thing on her mind.

Inside her walk-in refrigerator at McMaster University here in Ontario, her collection filled three walls of metal shelves. The 125 putty-colored specimens sat in frosted jars and snap-top plastic tubs like quarts of boiled shrimp and wedges of cheese.

Every one posed a riddle that had shaped her research for 30 years: How does the structure of the brain influence intelligence?

A professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, Witelson grappled with such a fundamental mystery by studying a somewhat smaller one: why certain abilities develop on one side of the brain rather than the other.

The two hemispheres of the brain are almost symmetrical physically but can seem to be separate minds when it comes to awareness and mental processing. They even have different problem-solving styles, researchers report. Yet they work together seamlessly to produce a single mind.

By 1977, Witelson was trying to learn why language skills developed on the left side of the brain for all right-handers but on the right side for many left-handers.

To compare the two sides, she needed normal brains — more than anyone had gathered before.

For 10 years, she worked through a network of doctors and nurses, hoping to persuade terminal cancer patients to make a last contribution to medicine. Her research was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

By 1987, 120 men and women had agreed to donate their brains after death. They all submitted to thorough psychological and intelligence tests so that each brain would be accompanied by a detailed profile of the mind that had animated it.

In the prime of life, the cerebral cortex contains 25 billion neurons linked through 164 trillion synapses.

Thoughts thread through 7.4 million miles of dendrite fibers and 62,000 miles of axons so compacted that the entire neural network is no larger than a coconut.

No two brains are identical, nor are two minds ever the same.

With so many well-documented donors, however, Witelson could conduct comparative brain studies on an unprecedented scale.

She could confidently seek relationships between anatomical features and mental capacities. She could also compare right-handers and left-handers, and sort the organs by gender.

In an era when people probe the thought process with scanners, radioactive tracers and super-conducting sensors, Witelson's approach was deliberately old-fashioned.

She measured her brains.

She weighed them.

She cut them up and counted the cells.

She traced synapses, the junctures where impulses pass from one neuron to another in the hidden root cellars of the brain.

Wherever she looked, she discerned subtle patterns that only gender seemed to explain.

"We actually didn't set out to find sex differences," she said. "Sometimes as a scientist, you are doing one thing and you bump into something else."

Controversial Matters

The brains in Witelson's freezer are contested terrain in a controversy over gender equality and mental performance.

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