Reduced cortical neuron number and neuron density in schizophrenia with focus on area 24: a post-mortem case–control study

Richard Gaus, Melanie Popal, Helmut Heinsen, Andrea Schmitt, Peter Falkai, Patrick R. Hof, Christoph Schmitz, Alisa Vollhardt

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Structural and functional abnormalities of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) have frequently been identified in schizophrenia. Alterations of von Economo neurons (VENs), a class of specialized projection neurons, have been found in different neuropsychiatric disorders and are also suspected in schizophrenia. To date, however, no definitive conclusions can be drawn about quantitative histologic changes in the ACC in schizophrenia because of a lack of rigorous, design-based stereologic studies. In the present study, the volume, total neuron number and total number of VENs in layer V of area 24 were determined in both hemispheres of postmortem brains from 12 male patients with schizophrenia and 11 age-matched male controls. To distinguish global from local effects, volume and total neuron number were also determined in the whole area 24 and whole cortical gray matter (CGM). Measurements were adjusted for hemisphere, age, postmortem interval and fixation time using an ANCOVA model. Compared to controls, patients with schizophrenia showed alterations, with lower mean total neuron number in CGM (− 14.9%, P = 0.007) and in layer V of area 24 (− 21.1%, P = 0.002), and lower mean total number of VENs (− 28.3%, P = 0.027). These data provide evidence for ACC involvement in the pathophysiology of schizophrenia, and complement neuroimaging findings of impaired ACC connectivity in schizophrenia. Furthermore, these results support the hypothesis that the clinical presentation of schizophrenia, particularly deficits in social cognition, is associated with pathology of VENs.


  • Anterior cingulate cortex
  • Area 24
  • Layer V
  • Schizophrenia
  • Stereology
  • Von Economo neuron


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