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Keywords:

  • frontotemporal dementia;
  • autism;
  • schizophrenia;
  • empathy;
  • disgust;
  • self-awareness;
  • hemispheric specialization

The von Economo neurons (VENs) are large bipolar neurons located in the frontoinsular cortex (FI) and limbic anterior (LA) area in great apes and humans but not in other primates. Our stereological counts of VENs in FI and LA show them to be more numerous in humans than in apes. In humans, small numbers of VENs appear the 36th week postconception, with numbers increasing during the first 8 months after birth. There are significantly more VENs in the right hemisphere in postnatal brains; this may be related to asymmetries in the autonomic nervous system. VENs are also present in elephants and whales and may be a specialization related to very large brain size. The large size and simple dendritic structure of these projection neurons suggest that they rapidly send basic information from FI and LA to other parts of the brain, while slower neighboring pyramids send more detailed information. Selective destruction of VENs in early stages of frontotemporal dementia (FTD) implies that they are involved in empathy, social awareness, and self-control, consistent with evidence from functional imaging.