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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.  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 1-4 (4)