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Abstract

The von Economo neurons (VENs) are large bipolar neurons located in frontoinsular (FI) and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) in great apes and humans but not other primates. We stereologically counted the VENs in FI and the limbic anterior (LA) area of ACC and found them to be more numerous in humans than in apes. In humans, VENs first appear in small numbers in the 36th week postconception are rare at birth and increase in number during the first 8 months after birth. There are significantly more VENs in the right hemisphere than the left in FI and LA in postnatal brains; this may be related to asymmetries in the autonomic nervous system. The activity of the inferior anterior insula, containing FI, is related to physiological changes in the body, decision-making, error recognition, and awareness. In a preliminary diffusion tensor imaging study of the connections of FI, we found that the VEN-containing regions connect with the frontal pole as well as with other parts of frontal and insular cortex, the septum, and the amygdala. The VENs and a related cell population, the fork cells, selectively express the bombesin peptides neuromedin B (NMB) and gastrin releasing pepide, which signal satiety. The loss of VENs and fork cells may be related to the loss of satiety signaling in patients with frontotemporal dementia who have damage to FI. These cells may be morphological specializations of an ancient population of neurons involved in the control of appetite present in the insular cortex in all mammals. Am. J. Hum. Biol., 2011. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.