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Some New Insights On One Of The Rarest Neurons Ever

Well, Well, Scientists have brought us another curious information. Do not be surprised if someone asks you whether you recognize spindle neurons or Von Economo Neurons (VENs). This is a rare nerve cell. The exciting part is that researchers could record their electrical activity for the very first time.

These were first identified about 140 years ago, and have since been spotted within the brains of great apes, whales, dolphins, cows, and elephants. These rare neurons evolved independently in animals with particularly large brains, or perhaps particularly social animals, but scientists don’t understand what they are doing, partially because they aren’t found in common lab animals like mice and rats, making them difficult to review.

Thanks to a Seattle woman in her 60s who agreed to donate tissue removed during surgery on a brain tumor. This tissue contained very rare human brain cells which we call von Economo neurons.

“We’re all keenly aware that the tissues we study come from individuals who generously donate a part of their brain in what’s often an otherwise difficult situation,” said Ed Lein, Ph.D., who heads the human nerve cell type research at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, a division of the Allen Institute.

VENs are large and spindle-shaped (hence their alternative name) and are found in only three small regions of the brain.

These VENs are overabundant in older people that don’t suffer the quality amnesia of aging. Moreover, it is found that the loss of those neurons could cause certain brain diseases.

All these factors make VENs a more gripping subject for study.

Allen Institute neuroscientists Brian Kalmbach, Ph.D., and Jonathan Ting, Ph.D., also authors on the study, were ready and waiting to start electrical recordings the day the rare brain sample arrived.

To capture these neuron signals that they had to carefully puncture each cell with a tiny glass pipette. It’s a fragile job on the simplest of days and thereupon particular sample, it had been almost impossible, Kalmbach said.

“I would attend touch the cells with the pipette, and that they would just explode,” Kalmbach said. “It was super frustrating.

“But luckily, we could finally record from some cells, which was exciting since that hadn’t been done before.”

Their study shows that these VENs have striking and weird shapes, putting them into an equivalent category of pyramidal neurons.

“It is obvious that VENs, fork cells and a subset of pyramidal cells are transcriptomically almost like each other,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

This discovery has made us move another step closer to find more about the brain. All of this was thanks to the donation.

“At now we’re really within the descriptive phase of understanding these neurons,” Lein said. “There are still many remaining mysteries.”

The research was published in Nature Communications.


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