Von Economo neurons (VENs) develop late in the gestational period, not starting to be produced until the 35th week, when only 15% of the total adult population develops. Their development, migration and synaptogenesis is then halted until the 4th postnatal month when a second generation of cells begins to develop in a process that continues until the 4th year of life. They migrate to three areas of the human brain and to date have only been found in the great apes, certain whales, elephants, bottlenose dolphins and in very small numbers in the manatee. It has been suggested that their presence in these limited species is related to the degree of encephalization and a high brain to body ratio. They are species specific in terms of numbers present, structure, location and columnar arrangement. It has been suggested that the evolution of humans was driven by the emergence of large social networks and it is possible that VENs in humans, whales, great apes, dolphins and elephants may have a vital role in the development of this social behaviour.
To draw together research being conducted into the presence of von Economo neurons, their location, number of cells present, their migration, their connections, and the neurodevelopment of the paediatric brain and discuss their possible role in neurodevelopmental/neuropsychiatric disorders.
This study was a review of the available literature.
The Boolean operators (von Economo cells OR spindle cells) AND anterior cingulate; von Economo cells AND (infraorbital area OR frontal pole) were used to perform a computerised literature search of MEDLINE, Science Direct, Cochrane Library, Science Citation Index, SCOPUS, CINAHL and the worldwide web. Papers chosen were limited to those concerning human studies, the great apes, cetaceans and the African and Indian elephants.