Abstract

The human anterior cingulate and frontoinsular cortices are distinguished by 2 unique Layer 5 neuronal morphotypes, the von Economo neurons (VENs) and fork cells, whose biological identity remains mysterious. Insights could impact research on diverse neuropsychiatric diseases to which these cells have been linked. Here, we leveraged the Allen Brain Atlas to evaluate mRNA expression of 176 neurotransmitter-related genes and identified vesicular monoamine transporter 2 (VMAT2), gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptor subunit θ (GABRQ), and adrenoreceptor α-1A (ADRA1A) expression in human VENs, fork cells, and a minority of neighboring Layer 5 neurons. We confirmed these results using immunohistochemistry or in situ hybridization. VMAT2 and GABRQ expression was absent in mouse cerebral cortex. Although VMAT2 is known to package monoamines into synaptic vesicles, in VENs and fork cells its expression occurs in the absence of monoamine-synthesizing enzymes or reuptake transporters. Thus, VENs and fork cells may possess a novel, uncharacterized mode of cortical monoaminergic function that distinguishes them from most other mammalian Layer 5 neurons.

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