International Team Discovers New Type Of Neuron That May Be Unique To Humans

An illustration showing the classic-looking neuron we remember from biology class. Rosehip neurons have many more axons than this and belong to a special class known as inhibitory neurons. whitehoune/Shutterstock

A new type of neuron has been discovered, and it could help explain what makes the human brain unique compared to other animals.

Charmingly named the "rosehip neuron" due to the way its many axons resemble a rose that has lost its petals, the cells appear to exist only in the human cortex – the outermost layer of the brain that is comprised of the frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital lobes. These areas are the origin of higher thought, self-awareness, and sensory processing, and are proportionally much larger in us Homo sapiens than any other species.

"It's the most complex part of the brain, and generally accepted to be the most complex structure in nature," researcher Ed Lein said in a statement. Lein and his colleagues at the Allen Institute for Brain Science teamed up with Gábor Tamás and his researchers at the University of Szeged, Hungary, to tease out the mysteries of the rosehip neuron after both groups realized they were hot on the trail of the same cell.

A digital reconstruction of a rosehip neuron in the human brain. Tamás Lab, University of Szeged

You see, although neuroscientists have made significant advances in unraveling the ironically mind-boggling inner workings of the mammalian brain in the past several decades, most of the findings have come from experiments and observations in mice. And while it appears that many aspects of our brains' anatomy and physiology are indeed similar to those of mice, very little work has been done comparing the two species’ cortices.

“With the mouse cortex as the dominant model for understanding human cognition, it is essential to establish whether the cellular architecture of the human brain is conserved or whether there are specialized cell types and system properties that cannot be modeled in rodents,” the collaborative team explained in their paper, now published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

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