Pure Pedantry

There are no “social” neurons!

Grrrr. Tell me if this article bugs you as much as it does me:

Social Dementia’ Decimates Special Neurons

By Michael Balter

Being human has its pluses and minuses. Our cognitive powers are superior to that of other animals, and we can act consciously to alter our destinies. On the other hand, our highly evolved brains are prone to serious malfunctions such as mental illness and dementia. Now a team of neuroscientists has found that some of these blessings and curses might be linked to the same specialized neural circuits.

In 1999, researchers discovered that the brains of humans and great apes such as chimpanzees and gorillas contain special elongated nerve cells called spindle neurons. These cells, also known as Von Economo neurons (VENs), are localized in two parts of the cerebral cortex known to be associated with social behavior, consciousness, and emotion. They are not found in other primates, although very recently they were discovered in some whales (ScienceNOW, 27 November).

William Seeley, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues set out to see whether VENs play a role in a type of dementia that causes people to lose inhibition in social situations. People with frontotemporal dementia (FTD) engage in inappropriate and impulsive behavior and sometimes even carry out criminal acts such as shoplifting. The team looked at the brains of 7 deceased patients with FTD and compared them to 7 controls who had died of causes unrelated to the brain, as well as 5 patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, a very different type of dementia that mainly affects memory. The researchers found that one of the two brain areas that contain VENs, the anterior cingulate cortex, looked very different in FTD patients: There was a 74% reduction in the number of VENs compared to controls. In contrast, Alzheimer’s patients had only a small and statistically insignificant reduction, they report online today in Annals of Neurology.

Seeley and his colleagues conclude that VENs may play a key role in making humans the social creatures that we are, but that they also expose us to a higher risk of degenerative neural diseases. Lary Walker, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, says that the authors make a “reasonably compelling case that the VENs are selectively vulnerable in FTD”. Nevertheless, Walker cautions against ascribing complex behaviors to the action of specific cells or regions in the brain.

Sometimes, science journalism makes me crazy.

i-51759054cb4cfaa2c444039970134ab9-phrenology.jpgFirst of all, neither parts of the brain nor neurons themselves are not associated with emotion or social behavior or consciousness. Neurons release neurotransmitters and participate in neural circuits. These neural circuits are located in particular parts of the brain and are responsible for complex behaviors. You cannot reify either a cell or a part of the brain into a complex behavior because the action of a circuit is not separable from the whole. To do so is essentially phrenology.

Second, I do not dispute the data with respect to FTD that this cell type is destroyed, but it is a thousand times more complicated than that. This is illustrated by the fact that in FTD you lose these neurons while in Alzheimer’s you do not. FTD and Alzheimer’s can have similar presentations depending on the degree of frontal involvement in the Alzheimer’s patient. Thus, this is clearly not the whole story.

What steams me about this is that all the complexity in this system is hidden in the last sentence of the article. “Walker cautions against ascribing complex behaviors to the action of specific cells or regions in the brain.” Walker is being a good scientist, but the article is implying the opposite conclusion. The article is suggesting that we attribute the behavior to the neurons — particularly in the title. If I were one of the researchers cited in the article, I would be pissed.

I feel like this is just sloppy and misleading journalism.


  1. #1 mk
    January 3, 2007

    i felt the same way about the much-discussed Nicholas Wade article of 12/18:
    “The neocortex is essentially asking the hippocampus to replay events that contain a certain image, place or sound,he said.The neocortex is trying to make sense of what is going on in the hippocampus and to build models of the world, to understand how and why things happen.”
    the quote is attributed to the scientist!
    Personally, I don’t think the neocortex is ‘asking’ or ‘trying’ or ‘understanding’.

  2. #2 The neurophilosopher
    January 3, 2007

    And it’s from the AAAS! Tut tut!!

  3. #3 The Neurocritic
    January 3, 2007

    Sometimes, science journalism makes me crazy.

    I’m with you there, from the very first word of the title: “Social” Dementia. I’ve never heard of frontotemporal dementia referred to as “social” dementia. And as you noted, did the researchers suggest that Von Economo neurons (aka spindle neurons) are “social” neurons? NO!

  4. #4 Dave F.
    January 4, 2007


    I’m a layman who enjoys hearing what informed people say, and so I thank you for the post. You highlight the principle that things should be made as simple as possible but no simpler.

    An analogy like “the neocortex is asking the hippocampus” is fine in some contexts (as is “my blog wanted to see different code there”), but not in others.

    …Speaking of pure pedantry, isn’t the “not” out of place in this sentence?

    First of all, neither parts of the brain nor neurons themselves are not associated with emotion or social behavior or consciousness.

    (Just checking; I could be missing a point. This is meant constructively; if the word’s an error, feel free to also remove this part of my comment.)

  5. #5 john Connolly
    September 8, 2008

    Instead of a comment, a question. In what part of the brain do basic motor instincts reside?

    I?ve been googling for a half hour and all I get are discussions and blogs,