Commentary: Einstein's brain and other marvels

February 14, 2001

Imagine the brain that could understand for the first time how matter and energy relate and how they curve space and time to create gravity. Now imagine the brain that could come up with such a discovery when people read books by candlelight and horses

Imagine the brain that could understand for the first time how matter and energy relate and how they curve space and time to create gravity. Now imagine the brain that could come up with such a discovery when people read books by candlelight and horses drew carriages.

A couple years ago it was learned that this brain, Albert Einstein's, had some very unusual features. First, the lobe associated with spatial relationships, and mathematical processes was 15% wider than normal. Second, this part of the brain, called the inferior parietal lobe, was missing much of a groove, the Sylvian fissure. The researchers who discovered this abnormality hypothesized that the groove may have been filled by neuronal connections that allowed unique communications between the parts of this brain lobe. What caused this change? Was it a quirk of nature or an evolutionary change that might affect our entire species?

Technological leaps are almost as mystical and often as prone to interpretation. It is as though some unknown force takes charge and alters the normal sequence of events. Such alterations can seldom be predicted. Who could have known in Einstein's day that people would one day communicate by computer? For that matter, just 30 years before Einstein crafted his theory of relativity, who could have guessed that people would harness x-rays, ultrasound, or magnetism to see inside the body?

There is no way we can imagine what the next big leap forward in medicine will be, but we can look at the current practice, define its weaknesses, and ponder solutions. We can look at existing technologies and see how they might be applied in different ways. Few of us do. Most times we drill down to get that extra bit of performance. When we do exit the mainstream, however, marvelous things can happen.

It can be argued that Stereotaxis followed the path less traveled and along the way came up with "interventional robotics." Before then, we had the traditional way. We had the highly advanced technology that allowed visualization in two and three dimensions of the vasculature and cardiac tissue. In between there was nothing.

Whether the technology Stereotaxis has developed will succeed is hard to say. Intuitively, it makes sense to use a magnetic drawstring controlled by a computer to lead catheters through blood vessels. But imagining, building, and even successfully testing a solution are only the first few steps. The rest of the journey will happen only if the idea is accepted by physicians and put into practice. Therein lies the challenge: changing the practice of medicine.

Perhaps change in the future will be easier if, instead of a quirk of fate, Einstein's brain was the forerunner of an evolutionary leap.