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Autistic traits – Von Economo Neurons (VENs)

Von Economo Neurons (VENs) were described in detail by von Economo in 1925. They then disappeared into obscurity until Esther Nimchinsky et al described them again in 1995 at which time they were known as spindle cells. Since that time a number of papers have been published on the limited number of species that have them – great apes, certain whales and dolphins, elephants and humans – their structure and their possible functions.

VENs have been implicated as having a possible role in a number of neuropsychiatric / neurodevelopmental disorders including learning and behavioural issues in children. It has been suggested by Prof. John Allman that the absence of von Economo neurons is associated with true autism. This has been questioned by other authors and further research is required to settle the matter finally.

It is my opinion that when these cells are present but they are struggling to make their presence felt that autistic traits appear and this may lead to a child being labelled as autistic. A child with autistic traits may appear to be autistic on many fronts but often the parents will doubt the diagnosis and often these doubts are justified. Often when I listen to a mother describing her child and I pose various questions about eye contact, toe-walking, flapping and affection, I too have immediate doubts and get a real buzz. In this situation I prefer to think of the child as suffering from an extreme form of Developmental Delay which in theory should make it amenable to treatment.

For further information see the Research page or books by Robin Pauc.