Researchers at Seattle’s Allen Institute for Brain Science have captured the first-ever recording of electrical spikes from von Economo neurons — a rare kind of cell that’s found deep in the human brain and may be associated with social intelligence.
The cells were recovered from living tissue that was removed from the brain of a woman in her 60s in order to gain access to a tumor. The tissue found its way to the Allen Institute through a program that quickly transports donated tissue from Seattle-area hospitals to the institute’s lab for analysis.
Institute researcher Ed Lein and his colleagues report their findings about the neurons today in Nature Communications. They found that although the neurons are unusually large and spindle-shaped, their gene expression patterns are similar to those of other cells called pyramidal neurons. They seem likely to transmit signals from the cortex to deeper regions of the brain, including the brainstem.
Von Economo neurons — also known as spindle neurons — are named after Constantin von Economo, a psychologist and neurologist who described the cells in 1929. They’ve been found in the brains of great apes, whales, dolphins, cows and elephants — leading some scientists to theorize that they evolved independently in animals with particularly large brains, or perhaps in particularly social animals.