Unusual Neuron Could Explain the Smartest Species

People have it, elephants have it, even killer whales have it

Killer Whales

NOAA/Robert Pittman

A neuroscientist carves up brains to investigate the presence of unique brain cells found only in humans, primates, elephants and a handful of marine mammals -- species that are characterized by large brains, a long childhood spent learning from their elders, and sophisticated social interaction, reports Smithsonian.

In his Caltech lab, John Allman slices off the thinnest slivers of an elephant's brain, looking for the presence of von Economo neurons -- and possibly a glimpse into the evolution of human behavior.

Discovered in 1881, von Economo neurons are only recently being linked to "social intelligence." The long cells are four times the size of most others in the brain, and have only a single dendrite -- compared to other brain cells have have several. They reside in areas of the brain that are especially active when people experience emotion and which appear to be important in "self-monitoring." Allman theorizes that the cells' length indicates that they are especially fast, and so aid communication from "the brain's social hot spots" to the rest of the brain.