Brain Cells for Socializing

Ingfei Chen in Smithsonian Magazine:

ScreenHunter_01 May. 31 11.17 There was little chance of missing the elephant in the room. About a dozen years after Simba died at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, a half-inch slab of her yellowish, wrinkled, basketball-size brain was laid out before John Allman, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Preserved in formaldehyde, it looked like half a pancake, frozen solid on a misting bed of dry ice. Allman carefully sliced it using the laboratory equivalent of a deli meat cutter. Taking well over an hour, he carved off 136 paper-thin sections.

Allman was searching for a peculiar kind of brain cell that he suspects is a key to how the African elephant—like a human being—manages to stay attuned to the ever-shifting nuances of social interplay. These spindle-shaped brain cells, called von Economo neurons—named for the man who first described them—are found only in human beings, great apes and a handful of other notably gregarious creatures. Allman, 66, compares the brains of people and other animals to gain insight into the evolution of human behavior.

More here.