Friday, August 8, 2008

Loss of von Economo neurons may be associated with frontotemporal dementia

On Wednesday, I wrote about the fact that the brains of gorillas weigh only about 40% as much as human brains. There is, however, one way in which our brains are similar to simians: the presence of the von Economo neuron (VEN).

Constantin von Economo demonstrated in the 1920’s that these neurons are present only in the anterior cingulate and insular cortices (layer Vb). It was later determined that VENs are only present in hominids (humans and great apes), and that they are more numerous on the right side of the brain. Also referred to as spindle neurons because of their spindle-shaped cell bodies, VENs are larger than pyramidal neurons and tend to cluster parallel to small arterioles (pictured on right as compared to pyramidal neuron). More recently, it was found that VENs are also present in various species of whales and in elephants. The common theme here is that VENs are present in social animals with large brains. Since the VEN-populated areas of the brain are preferentially affected in frontotemporal dementia (FTD), it is thought that perhaps loss of these neurons may be related to the aberrant social functioning seen in FTD patients.


Marissa said...

Thank you for your post on VENs. Not only is their morphology cool, but they are so functionally versatile. What other cell is active during the 'fast intuitive assessment of complex social situations' (aka intuition), reading mental states, and a whole host of social situations?

Absolutely fascinating. The best thing since mirror neurons! Actually better because we can SEE VENs!

Its interesting that in Autism there have been conflicting neuropathology reports. One group found no reduction in VEN number in the Frontoinsular cortex, another group had an impression there was an increased numbers of VENs, and VENs located in cortical layers other than Vb and in white matter. Given that autism is a neurodevelopmental, social disorder wouldn't we expect to see a decreased number of these cells?

Brian E. Moore, MD said...
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Brian E. Moore, MD said...

You would expect there to be a loss of insular VENs in autism. Hmmm. Did the studies look at VENs within the anterior cingulate as well? Perhaps the latter location is related to social intuition, and not so much the insular cortex. Thanks for your enthusiastic commentary!

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