High-achieving professors’ brains – are they different (to low-achieving professors’)?

A new (and possibly unique) research project has performed detailed examinations of the physical structure of the brains of high-achieving university professors. More specifically, Chinese high-achieving university professors. Or, to be precise, male Chinese high-achieving university professors. Inspired (in part) by a 1999 study entitled ‘The exceptional brain of Albert Einstein’ (in: The Lancet, vol. 353, pp. 2149–2153) [which examined the structure Einstein’s brain using measurements and photographs of slices of it which had been taken at his post-mortem] investigators Weiwei Li, Wenjing Yang, Wenfu Li, Yadan Li, Dongtao Wei, Huimin Li, Jiang Qiu, and Qinglin Zhang looked instead at ‘Brain Structure and Resting-State Functional Connectivity in University Professors with High Academic Achievement’ (in: Creativity Research Journal, 27(2), pp. 139–150)


This time though, they opted for MRI scans rather than dissections. The heads of 22 professorial subjects were scanned, having been divided into two groups – the high-achieving professors (HAPs) (viz. those with more awards, honors, and research achievements; and who had presided over more national research projects and provincial research projects in China) and low-achieving professors (LAPs)

“During rs-fMRI data scanning, participants laid supinely with their heads comfortably fixed by birdcage head coil and padded with foam to minimize head movement. Earplugs were used to reduce the influence of scanner noise. Participants were asked to close eyes lightly, keep still as much as possible, not to think about anything and sleepy. [sic]”

Voxel-based morphometry analysis of the resulting scans revealed that :

“[…] HAP had greater rGMV in the left inferior frontal gyrus (mainly in the posterior orbital frontal gyrus, OFG) and supplementary motor cortex (SMA), which might be associated with effective behavioral and cognitive planning and execution; smaller rGMV in the right medial prefrontal gyrus (mPFC) and right inferior parietal lobule (IPL), which might be related to increased novelty seeking and hypothetical thinking. Functional connectivity analysis revealed interactions between some specific brain regions in HAP when the left OFG, the left SMA and the left postcentralgyrus (PCG) were used as seed regions, which indicated that the interactions between these brain regions might be critically involved in professors’ intellectual and creative abilities.”

The investigators do add a corollary though :

“There is no denying that every scientific research has more or less limitations. This study also has some limitations. For example, the differences in brain structure and functional connectivity might be influenced by many factors: language expertise, math expertise, music expertise, working memory, attention, knowledge, etc. Moreover, a limitation exists in this study with small sample.”

Also see (fMRI brain-scan related): fMRI and Forrest Gump Open Science