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04/13/2006 07:00:00

McDonnell Foundation Grant Will Be Used to Study Neurons Involved in Snap Decisions

PASADENA, Calif.-Where do you get your "gut feelings," that intuition that leads you to distrust someone who appears trustworthy? It could be your Von Economo brain cells in action, and a neurobiologist at the California Institute of Technology intends to find out for sure.

John Allman, the Hixon Professor of Neurobiology, has received a $1.8 million grant from the James S. McDonnell Foundation to study the Von Economo neuron. The funding will allow Allman and his colleagues to perform a wide variety of research on the specialized neurons. The work could lead to new insights into the nature and treatment of various psychiatric disorders.

According to Allman, the Von Economo neurons (or VENs) are large bipolar cells located in the anterior cingulate and fronto-insular cortex. Also referred to as spindle neurons because of their shape, the neurons have been the focus of intense attention by Allman and his team for several years.

"We think that the VENs may have an important role in intuition," Allman says. "By intuition, we mean a form of cognition in which many variables are rapidly evaluated in parallel and compressed into a single dimension for fast decision-making." It is essential for making fast decisions in complex, rapidly changing social contexts.

"We experience the intuitive process at the visceral level," Allman explains. "Intuitive decision-making enables us to react quickly in situations that involve a high degree of uncertainty, which commonly involve social interactions."

In fact, the term "gut reaction" is not accidental, Allman says, because the mechanism may share some wiring with the controlling of the digestive system. One possibility is that the very primitive system originally may have been helpful in keeping animals away from poisonous plants. A rapid reaction, thus, may have evolved so that an animal would know instantly to spit out a noxious berry or risk being poisoned. Allman believes that this system for regulating the consumption of nutritious foods and rejecting those that are toxic was the basis for the neural circuitry governing complex social feelings such as love and hate, empathy and guilt.

Allman says the work is important because VENs may be particularly vulnerable to dysfunction in certain cases in which early development is disturbed. Related brain structures are known to be associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder, psychopathy, fronto-temporal lobe dementia, autism, Asperger's syndrome, and maybe even schizophrenia.

The researchers will use the grant money to work on several related questions, including how the VENs arise during infant development, whether the gut indeed sends direct signals to the VENs, how the VENs in humans compare to those of apes, and whether the VENs are somehow abnormal in the brains of autistic patients.

The James S. McDonnell Foundation grant that Allman has received is formally titled the 21st Century Science Initiative in Bridging Brain, Mind, and Behavior-Collaborative Award.

Founded in 1950 by aerospace pioneer James S. McDonnell, the foundation was established to "improve the quality of life," and does so by contributing to the generation of new knowledge through its support of research and scholarship.

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Contact: Jill Perry (626) 395-3226 jperry@caltech.edu

Visit the Caltech Media Relations Web site at: http://pr.caltech.edu/media

Written by Jill Perry