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Barrow scientist awarded $400,000 grant to study cell associated with intuition and autism

A scientist at Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center has been awarded a $400,000 grant from the James S. McDonnell Foundation to help study a rare cell type that is believed to play a role in quick decision making and intuition. Abnormalities in this cell type have been seen in people suffering from autism and dementia.

Throughout the next four years, researcher A.D. "Bud" Craig, PhD, and other scientists in Barrow's Atkinson Pain Laboratory will use the grant to collaborate with the California Institute of Technology in the study of Von Economo Neurons (VENs). VENs, first described in 1925, were initially thought to only be found in humans and great apes. However, recent research has shown the cells also are found in several types of whales and in elephants.

In humans the VENs emerge mainly after birth and increase in number until age four. Scientists have speculated that in autism the VENs fail to develop normally, and that this failure might be partially responsible for the associated social disabilities that plague victims of autism.

The grant monies will be used to study the insular cortex, where a concentration of VENs is located, across a range of species. Research to date suggests that the insular cortex might contain the neural basis for human awareness. Thus far, research shows that VENs have evolved independently in at least three species. Dr. Craig's research will address the anatomical organization of this region across species.

"There is a lot of speculation about the importance of this cell in human evolution and brain function," says Dr. Craig. "We hope to find clues to the emergence and role of VENS in the insular cortex.

Dr. Craig is internationally recognized for his research into sensory pathways and the role that certain neurons play in pain, temperature, itch, and other sensations related to the physiological condition of the body.


Contact: Lynne Reaves
St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center

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