The anterior insular cortex is a small brain region that plays a crucial role in human self-awareness and in related neuropsychiatric disorders. A unique cell type – the von Economo neuron (VEN) – is located there.
Macaque Von Economo Neuron retrogradely labeled in anterior Insula. Picture: Henry Evrard / Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics
For a long time, the VEN was assumed to be unique to humans, great apes, whales and elephants. Henry Evrard, neuroanatomist at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, now discovered that the VEN occurs also in the insula of macaque monkeys.
The morphology, size and distribution of the monkey VEN suggest that it is at least a primal anatomical homolog of the human VEN. This finding offers new and much-needed opportunities to examine in detail the connections and functions of a cell and brain region that could have a key role in human self-awareness and in mental disorders including autism and specific forms of dementia.
The insular cortex, or simply insula, is a hidden cortical region folded and tucked away deep in the brain – an island within the cortex. Within the last decade, the insula has emerged from darkness as having a key role in diverse functions usually linked to our internal bodily states, to our emotions, to our self-awareness, and to our social interactions. The very anterior part of the insula in particular is where humans consciously sense subjective emotions, such as love, hate, resentment, self-confidence or embarrassment.
In relation to these feelings, the anterior insula is involved in various psychopathologies. Damage of the insula leads to apathy, and to the inability to tell what feelings we or our conversational partner experience. These inabilities and alteration of the insula are also encountered in autism and other highly detrimental neuropsychiatric disorders including the behavioral variant of frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD).
The von Economo neuron (VEN) occurs almost exclusively in the anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex. Until recently it was believed that the VEN is only present in humans, great apes and some large-brained mammals with complex social behavior such as whales and elephants. In contrast to the typical neighboring pyramidal neuron that is present in all mammals and all brain regions, the VEN has a peculiar spindle shape and is about three times as large. Their numeral density is selectively altered in autism and bvFTD.
Henry Evrard and his team, at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen now discovered VENs in the anterior insula in macaque monkeys. His present work provides compelling evidence that monkeys possess at least a primitive form of the human VEN although they do not have the ability to recognize themselves in a mirror, a behavioral hallmark of self-awareness.
“This means, other than previously believed, that highly concentrated VEN populations are not an exclusivity of hominids, but also occurs in other primate species”, explains Henry Evrard. “The VEN phylogeny needs to be reexamined. Most importantly, the very much-needed analysis of the connections and physiology of these specific neurons is now possible.” Knowing the functions of the VEN and its connections to other regions of the brain in monkeys could give us clues on the evolution of the anatomical substrate of self-awareness in humans and may help us in better understanding serious neuropsychiatric disabilities including autism, or even addictions such as to drugs or smoking.Original Publication:
The Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics works in the elucidation of cognitive processes. It employs about 300 people from more than 40 countries and is located at the Max Planck Campus in Tübingen, Germany. The Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics is one of 80 research institutes that the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science maintains in Germany and abroad.
Stephanie Bertenbreiter | Max-Planck-Institut
Designed proteins to treat muscular dystrophy
29.06.2017 | Universität Basel
Funding of Collaborative Research Center developing nanomaterials for cancer immunotherapy extended
28.06.2017 | Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...
Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.
Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...
Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.
As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...
Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.
With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...
Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine
Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...
19.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
29.06.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering
29.06.2017 | Life Sciences
29.06.2017 | Seminars Workshops