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1.  A volumetric comparison of the insular cortex and its subregions in primates 
Journal of human evolution  2013;64(4):263-279.
The neuronal composition of the insula in primates displays a gradient, transitioning from granular neocortex in the posterior-dorsal insula to agranular neocortex in the anterior-ventral insula with an intermediate zone of dysgranularity. Additionally, apes and humans exhibit a distinctive subdomain in the agranular insula, the frontoinsular cortex (FI), defined by the presence of clusters of von Economo neurons (VENs). Studies in humans indicate that the ventral anterior insula, including agranular insular cortex and FI, is involved in social awareness, and that the posterodorsal insula, including granular and dysgranular cortices, produces an internal representation of the body’s homeostatic state. We examined the volumes of these cytoarchitectural areas of insular cortex in 30 primate species, including the volume of FI in apes and humans. Results indicate that the whole insula scales hyperallometrically (exponent = 1.13) relative to total brain mass, and the agranular insula (including FI) scales against total brain mass with even greater positive allometry (exponent = 1.23), providing a potential neural basis for enhancement of social cognition in association with increased brain size. The relative volumes of the subdivisions of the insular cortex, after controlling for total brain volume, are not correlated with species typical social group size. Although its size is predicted by primate-wide allometric scaling patterns, we found that the absolute volume of the left and right agranular insula and left FI are among the most differentially expanded of the human cerebral cortex compared to our closest living relative, the chimpanzee.
PMCID: PMC3756831  PMID: 23466178
Allometry; Brain; Evolution; Frontoinsular cortex; Hominoids
2.  The von Economo neurons in fronto-insular and anterior cingulate cortex 
The von Economo neurons (VENs) are large bipolar neurons located in fronto-insular cortex (FI) and anterior limbic area (LA) 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 post conception, with numbers increasing during the first eight 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 fronto-temporal dementia implies that they are involved in empathy, social awareness, and self-control, consistent with evidence from functional imaging.
PMCID: PMC3140770  PMID: 21534993
fronto-temporal dementia; autism; schizophrenia; empathy; disgust; self-awareness; hemispheric specialization
3.  Biochemical specificity of von Economo neurons in hominoids 
Von Economo neurons (VENs) are defined by their thin, elongated cell body and long dendrites projecting from apical and basal ends. These distinctive neurons are mostly present in anterior cingulate (ACC) and fronto-insular (FI) cortex, with particularly high densities in cetaceans, elephants, and hominoid primates (i.e., humans and apes). This distribution suggests that VENs contribute to specializations of neural circuits in species that share both large brain size and complex social cognition, possibly representing an adaptation to rapidly relay socially-relevant information over long distances across the brain. Recent evidence indicates that unique patterns of protein expression may also characterize VENs, particularly involving molecules that are known to regulate gut and immune function. In this study, we used quantitative stereologic methods to examine the expression of three such proteins that are localized in VENs – activating-transcription factor 3 (ATF3), interleukin 4 receptor (IL4Rα) and neuromedin B (NMB). We quantified immunoreactivity against these proteins in different morphological classes of ACC layer V neurons of hominoids. Among the different neuron types analyzed (pyramidal, VEN, fork, enveloping, and other multipolar), VENs showed the greatest percentage that displayed immunostaining. Additionally, a higher proportion of VENs in humans were immunoreactive to ATF3, IL4Rα, and NMB than in other apes. No other ACC layer V neuron type displayed a significant species difference in the percentage of immunoreactive neurons. These findings demonstrate that phylogenetic variation exists in the protein expression profile of VENs, suggesting that humans might have evolved biochemical specializations for enhanced interoceptive sensitivity.
PMCID: PMC3004764  PMID: 21140465
brain; evolution; ape; human; neuron
4.  The Claustrum and Insula in Microcebus murinus: A High Resolution Diffusion Imaging Study 
The claustrum and the insula are closely juxtaposed in the brain of the prosimian primate, the gray mouse lemur (Microcebus murinus). Whether the claustrum has closer affinities with the cortex or the striatum has been debated for many decades. Our observation of histological sections from primate brains and genomic data in the mouse suggest former. Given this, the present study compares the connections of the two structures in Microcebus using high angular resolution diffusion imaging (HARDI, with 72 directions), with a very small voxel size (90 micra), and probabilistic fiber tractography. High angular and spatial resolution diffusion imaging is non-destructive, requires no surgical interventions, and the connection of each and every voxel can be mapped, whereas in conventional tract tracer studies only a few specific injection sites can be assayed. Our data indicate that despite the high genetic and spatial affinities between the two structures, their connectivity patterns are very different. The claustrum connects with many cortical areas and the olfactory bulb; its strongest probabilistic connections are with the entorhinal cortex, suggesting that the claustrum may have a role in spatial memory and navigation. By contrast, the insula connects with many subcortical areas, including the brainstem and thalamic structures involved in taste and visceral feelings. Overall, the connections of the Microcebus claustrum and insula are similar to those of the rodents, cat, macaque, and human, validating our results. The insula in the Microcebus connects with the dorsolateral frontal cortex in contrast to the mouse insula, which has stronger connections with the ventromedial frontal lobe, yet this is consistent with the dorsolateral expansion of the frontal cortex in primates. In addition to revealing the connectivity patterns of the Microcebus brain, our study demonstrates that HARDI, at high resolutions, can be a valuable tool for mapping fiber pathways for multiple sites in fixed brains in rare and difficult-to-obtain species.
PMCID: PMC3374366  PMID: 22707933
Microcebus murinus; gray mouse lemur; claustrum; insula; HARDI; probabilistic fiber tractography
5.  A framework for interpreting functional networks in schizophrenia 
Some promising genetic correlates of schizophrenia have emerged in recent years but none explain more than a small fraction of cases. The challenge of our time is to characterize the neuronal networks underlying schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric illnesses. Early models of schizophrenia have been limited by the ability to readily evaluate large-scale networks in living patients. With the development of resting state and advanced structural magnetic resonance imaging, it has become possible to do this. While we are at an early stage, a number of models of intrinsic brain networks have been developed to account for schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric disorders. This paper reviews the recent voxel-based morphometry (VBM), diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), and resting functional magnetic resonance imaging literature in light of the proposed networks underlying these disorders. It is suggested that there is support for recently proposed models that suggest a pivotal role for the salience network. However, the interactions of this network with the default mode network and executive control networks are not sufficient to explain schizophrenic symptoms or distinguish them from other neuropsychiatric disorders. Alternatively, it is proposed that schizophrenia arises from a uniquely human brain network associated with directed effort including the dorsal anterior and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), auditory cortex, and hippocampus while mood disorders arise from a different brain network associated with emotional encoding including the ventral anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), orbital frontal cortex, and amygdala. Both interact with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and a representation network including the frontal and temporal poles and the fronto-insular cortex, allowing the representation of the thoughts, feelings, and actions of self and others across time.
PMCID: PMC3380255  PMID: 22737116
schizophrenia; major depressive disorder; bipolar disorder; functional MRI; voxel-based morphometry; diffusion tensor imaging; default mode network; salience network
6.  Comparative Anatomy of the Locus Coeruleus in Humans and Non-Human Primates 
The locus coeruleus (LC) is a dense cluster of neurons that projects axons throughout the neuroaxis and is located in the rostral pontine tegmentum extending from the level of the inferior colliculus to the motor nucleus of the trigeminal nerve. LC neurons are lost in the course of several neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases. In this study, we used Nissl staining and tyrosine hydroxylase (TH) immunoreactivity to compare the human LC with that of closely related primate species, including great and lesser apes, and macaque monkeys. TH catalyzes the initial and rate-limiting step in catecholamine biosynthesis. The number of TH-immunoreactive (TH-ir) neurons was estimated in each species using stereologic methods. In the LC of humans, the mean total number of TH-ir neurons was significantly higher compared to the other primates. Because the total number of TH-ir neurons in the LC was highly correlated with the species mean volume of the medulla oblongata, cerebellum, and neocortical gray matter, we conclude that much of the observed phylogenetic variation can be explained by anatomical scaling. Notably, the total number of LC neurons in humans was most closely predicted by the nonhuman allometric scaling relationship relative to medulla size, whereas the number of LC neurons in humans was considerably lower than predicted according to neocortex and cerebellum volume.
PMCID: PMC2820586  PMID: 20127761
Locus coeruleus; non-human primates; hominids; tyrosine hydroxylase; stereology

Results 1-6 (6)