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Dr Ben Seymour, Computational and Biological Learning Lab, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1PZ

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Center for Information and Neural Networks, National Institute for Information and Communications Technology (NICT), 1-3 Yamadaoka, Suita, Osaka 565-0871, Japan.

bjs49 AT cam.ac.uk / seymour AT cinet.jp

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Friday
Jun222012

Von Economo neurons - will they turn out to have a role in pain?

Von Economo neurons enjoy a level of privilege and exclusivity afforded to no other cell. This is because they inhabit only the brightest brains in the animal kingdom – higher primates, whales, dolphins, elephants to name a few. This has rendered them experimentally largely untouchable, and allowed them to run free in the imagination of neuroscientists, playing center stage in many grand theories of mind and consciousness. 

But for how much longer? Thanks to some careful and sophisticated microscopy, Evrard, Forro and Logethetis have now found them in the macaque brain [1], opening the doorway to future functional studies. Although much less abundant than in humans and the great apes, there seems little doubt that they are indeed there, most abundantly in the anterior insula. 

So what makes them so special? Apart from being present only in the very smart and very social, it’s the fact that the anterior insula and anterior cingulate cortex are two regions strongly implicated in things like social behaviour, empathy, self awareness, and even suicide. Furthermore, they are very big projection neurons, so clearly have the capacity to send ultra-fast information across broad areas of cortex. But this is all circumstantial, because until now no-one has been able to record from or stimulate them in awake behaving animals. 

So what’s this got to do with pain? Possibly not much, but of course the anterior insula and anterior cingulate are also the brain regions most reliably activated in studies of pain. And pain is sometimes argued to be the ‘highest’ form of consciousness, and related emotions such as empathy are crucial to social bonding. So could they have some specific role in pain – perhaps sending a global message to other parts of the brain when pain is detected? 

In a thoughtful commentary [2], Seth and Critchley suggest that they might have a role in interoception – the more general sense of the integrity of the body spanning thermal, autonomic, and pain sensation. In particular, they suggest it might mediate a pattern of recurrent connectivity with subcortical regions (such as the periaqueductal grey), as part of a hierarchical model of interoceptive perception. Such a model mimics more general theories of cortical function and perception, popular in domains such as vision, and something we amongst others have suggested might also be applicable to pain [3]. At first glance a perceptual role for Von Economo neurons might seem unlikely, otherwise why would we not see big neurons doing something similar in the visual system? But then again, interoception and pain are not much like vision, because they have significant intrinsic salience (usually aversive). Indeed, it is it’s capacity for things like pain to dominate our consciousness and command multiple autonomic and cognitive resources that might just require a system that rapidly evaluates and responds to stimuli in a special way. Unfortunately, however, it’s difficult to study pain in the macaque, but it will still be fascinating to see what happens during recordings from other stimuli and tasks. 


[1] Evrard et al. Von Economo Neurons in the Anterior Insula of the Macaque Monkey 
Neuron, Volume 74, Issue 3, 482-489, 10 May 2012 

[2] Seth and Critchley. Will Studies of Macaque Insula Reveal the Neural Mechanisms of Self-Awareness? Neuron, Volume 74, Issue 3, 423-426, 10 May 2012 

[3] Ben Seymour and Ray Dolan. Emotion, Motivation, and Pain. In Wall and Melzack's Textbook of Pain. 2012. Ch. 17. Eds. Kotzenburg and McMahaon. Elsevier. In press.

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