Scientists discover a new kind of neuron that may be unique to humans

Researchers have just discovered a new type of neuron that may be something unique to humans. It’s called the rose hip neuron, and its in our cerebral cortexes.

Two teams of scientists, one at the Gábor Tamás Lab at University of Szeged in Hungary and another led by Ed Lein at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, have jointly announced the discovery of a fascinating and new type of neuron in the outer layer of the cerebral cortex. It seems—at least so far—to be unique to human brains. It’s called a 'rose hip' neuron. The identification of these human-only rose-hip neurons is a show-stopper in two different ways.


Why rose hip neurons could be a big deal

What’s so special about humans?

Rose hips neurons are the only type of neuron that scientists believe is unique to humans, and thus may provide an important clue as to what separates us from other animals. Going forward, it may be that rose hip neurons will be found in other primates—as has happened before with other seemingly human-only structures appearing in other large-brained species—but so far, it’s us alone.

The neurons highlight questions about brain studies of mice


Microscopic view of a mouse’s cerebral cortex (ZEISS Microscopy)

The existence of rose hip neurons in human brains also underscores the questions surrounding brain research into human conditions using mice. Their brains most definitely do not have rose hip neurons, nor do they seem to have any other neurons that perform its suspected function.

In addition to concerns about the morality of testing on animals, it’s frequently been the case that apparent advancement in brain treatments based on mouse studies fail when applied to human brains. The new discovery undermines the use of mice in these studies as evidence our brains are not sufficiently similar to be useful in research. Tamás points out, "Many of our organs can be reasonably modeled in an animal model. But what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom is the capacity and the output of our brain. That makes us human. So it turns out humanity is very difficult to model in an animal system."

What rose hip neurons are believed to do

The rose hip neuron was discovered at the same time by the two teams looking at the brain in different ways.

The team from the Allen Institute was examining individual neurons’ transcriptomes, the set of RNA molecules they contain, one at a time extracted from two donated frozen brains. As Megan Molteni writing for WIRED puts it, “If DNA is like the blueprint for a car, RNA is like the parts list.”


One of two post-mortem human brains studied at the Allen Institute (Allen Institute)

Thus, the transcriptomics tells us what a neuron contains. Unique gene expression patterns in the rose hip neuron tipped them off to what they might do: The patterns match most closely with those in known inhibitory neurons, suggesting that rose hip neurons apply the brakes to the charges produced by other, excitatory, neurons. Lein suspects they may play a role in mental illness.

The Hungarian researchers spotted the neurons visually, using dyes in living tissue donated from brain-surgery patients, and mapping responses to different electrical stimuli. Lein says, "In the course of doing these recordings, [Gábor Tamás] started to notice a very distinctive type of cell that, to him, had the shape of a rose after the petals have fallen off. So he called them the ‘rose hip’ cell." They sequenced the odd-looking structures and found its genetics markers coincided with those from the Allen group, revealing that both teams had found the same thing, but from different angles.

A rose hip neuron, top, connected to a pyramidal neuron, bottom (Tamas Lab/University of Szeged)

Unique so far

While the researchers have affirmed rose hip neurons appear in none of the lab animals, including lab mice, more tests will be needed to be sure they’re unique to humans. According to Lein, “It’s too early to say that this is a completely unique cell type because we haven’t looked in other species yet. But it really highlights the fact that we need to be careful about assuming that the human brain is just a scaled-up version of a mouse.”

Steven Mnuchin withdraws from Saudi conference over missing journalist

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has cancelled an upcoming trip to an economic conference in Saudi Arabia amid the controversy involving missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Saudi Arabia's economic conference has been dubbed "Davos in the Desert".
  • Mnuchin joins a growing list of officials and industry executives who've dropped out of the event.
  • It's turning into a PR nightmare for the nation, particularly for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Keep reading Show less

Why thinking on paper is a fast way to focus

Writing by hand is the original concentration hack.

Videos
  • Writing by hand activates different parts of the brain simultaneously. Studies have shown students who hand-write notes versus typing them retain information for longer and with greater accuracy.
  • Our digital feeds are causing decision fatigue, says Ryder Carroll. Every push alert, notification, and email is asking us to make a decision, which saps our time, energy, and focus. Journaling is a way to steal a moment back from the everyday rush.
  • Be more selective and intentional about what you let into your life. "It's really important to realize that we are very limited: our attention is limited, our time is very limited. If we start to structure our days around that concept then we can start to protect the time that we do have and start trying to make decisions based on things that do matter to us," he says.

Where the water wars of the future will be fought

A new report warns about the increasing likelihood of international conflicts over water.

Abd al-Ibrahim, whose home was destroyed during fighting, as he rests on his trip to supply water to his family at the house they are squatting in the northern Syrian city of Raqa. October 15, 2018. (Photo credit: DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A study finds that serious conflicts over water are going to arise around the globe.
  • The 5 hotspots identified by the paper include areas of the Nile, Ganges-Brahmaputra, Indus, Tigris-Euphrates, and Colorado rivers.
  • It's still possible to change course if we are prepared to address the effects of climate change.
Keep reading Show less
A Star Is Born, Warner Bros Pictures
Surprising Science
  • It has to do with two parts of the brain, both of which are thicker in those with better smell and spacial recognition.
  • Your nose can detect about 1 trillion smells.
  • While your nose isn't a full GPS, it can help you pick out a general direction.
Keep reading Show less

The original 'Big Bird' puppeteer is leaving Sesame Street

He was recruited by Jim Henson himself in 1969.

(Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for HBO)
Culture & Religion
  • His last performance will be this coming Thursday, Oct. 19
  • A feature movie about him was made in 2014
  • Other actors will take over. Well, at least, they'll try ...
Keep reading Show less
(Opener)
Technology & Innovation
  • A Larry Page-backed company has announced that its flying car will go on sale in 2019.
  • It's called the BlackFly.
  • Not quite the escape from traffic you had in mind, but it's a jaw-dropping start.
Keep reading Show less

Being busy all the time is a habit you made. You can unmake it.

There will never be enough time. Here's how to use it more wisely.

Videos
  • One-third of us are suffering from chronic stress in the workplace. Other studies suggest that half of us bring our work stress home, creating stress in our personal lives.
  • Being busy has become a cultural obsession. But it's not the golden badge of honor we think it is. Dan Pontefract points out that there's a big difference between being busy and being productive.
  • The best productivity hack? Schedule a break. That means eating lunch away from your desk. Saying hello to people around you. Keep a graph in your mind that has 'action' on the x-axis and 'reflection' on the y-axis. Where do you sit on that graph?

7 brilliant Japanese words we need in English

Ever wanted to describe precisely how crummy you feel after a bad haircut?

Culture & Religion
  • English is a phenomenal language, but there are circumstances where words seem to fail us.
  • Often, other languages have already found a solution to expressing the complicated ideas that can't be succinctly conveyed in English.
  • If you've ever wanted to describe the anguish of a bad haircut, the pleasure of walking in the woods, or the satisfaction of finding your life's purpose, read on.

Don't get me wrong. The English language has some very excellent words. There's petrichor, the pleasant smell of the first rain after warm and dry weather. Paraprosdokian—which describes sentences that end surprisingly, forcing the reader to reinterpret the first half—is both oddly specific and fantastic to say out loud. I'm even a fan of new inventions, like tweetstorm, even if I'm not a fan of the experience.

But English-speaking culture—like any culture—has a limited perspective on the world. Just like English, Japanese also has some five-star words that English could stand to borrow. The Japanese have an entirely different perspective on the world than many English-speaking cultures—as proof, it's tough to imagine that the politely reserved Japanese have a word for defenestrate, or the act of throwing somebody out of a window. Here's the top 7 Japanese words that we could use in English.

1. Ikigai

(Flickr user Raul Pacheco-Vega)

Literally translating to "life value," Ikigai is best understood as the reason somebody gets up in the morning—somebody's reason for living. It's a combination of what you are good at, what you get paid to do, what you love to do, and what the world needs.

We often find our ikigai during flow states, which occur when a given task is just challenging and absorbing enough that we forget time has passed, that "in the zone" sensation. But it's more nuanced than something that is simply absorbing or a passion; it's a fulfilling kind of work that benefits oneself and others.

2. Karoshi

Karoshi, or death from overwork, provides a nice contrast to the concept of ikigai. Japan's work culture is so over the top that dying from working too hard is not uncommon. This word covers a range of ailments from heart failure to suicide, so long as the root of their cause is in working too hard.

As another hardworking nation, the U.S. could stand to better appreciate the dangers of overwork. Americans put in an average 47 hours a week, which is demonstrably bad for our health.

3. Shinrin-yoku

(Flickr user jungle_group)

This word translates to "forest-bathing," which sums up the activity fairly well. It's getting outdoors to de-stress, relax, and promote well-being. While the concept is familiar, we clearly don't place enough importance on getting outdoors to honor it with its own term.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend about 87% of their time indoors, which is clearly too much. Meanwhile, being in nature is associated with a slew of benefits, like improving memory, reducing stress and anxiety, and even lowering inflammation. Scotland has the right idea—doctors in Shetland can now prescribe nature to their patients.

4. Shikata ga nai

Used interchangeably with shouganai, this term roughly means "it cannot be helped." You can think of it as the Japanese equivalent of c'est la vie´or amor fati. It's the idea that one should accept things outside of one's control with dignity and grace and not implode from the pressure of having no control over a terrible situation.

This concept is a bit controversial. During the U.S. internment of Japanese-Americans after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, many Japanese-Americans resigned themselves to their mistreatment, characterizing the situation as shikata ga nai.

On the other hand, when a tsunami devastated Japan in 2011, many outside observers commented upon the stoic way the Japanese carried on with their daily lives, an example of the positive side of shikata ga nai.

5. Tsundoku

(pexels.com)

While it's a little less high-minded than the previous words on this list, it's certainly one that I and others could use. A combination of tsunde-oku (letting things pile up) and dukosho (reading books), tsundoku is the practice of buying a book you swear you're going to read, obviously not doing that, finding a new book you swear you're going to read, and then letting these abandoned books pile up in your house until it's a certifiable fire hazard.

6. Irusu

Garden State (2004)

You're in a terrible, anti-social mood and don't want to see anybody at all today. Suddenly, your doorbell rings; you lie as still as possible in your bed (surrounded by the hordes of unread books you purchased), praying the unwanted visitor leaves. This is the practice of irusu, or pretending not to be home when somebody rings your doorbell. It's a very common experience, although maybe the modern-day equivalent is responding "Sorry, I just got this" hours after you actually saw a text.

7. Age-otori

Not everybody practices tsundoku, and I'm sure some extroverts are entirely unfamiliar with practicing irusu, but everybody can identify with getting a bad haircut. Age-otori is the feeling one gets after leaving a barbershop looking worse than you did going in. It's an ingenious word for the unique blend of regret, suffering, and shame you feel after you foolishly trusted your elderly barber when he said "Yeah, I can do a hard part."

Bonus words

While Japanese has some phenomenal words, there are some that the English language probably doesn't have need of. For example, a nito-onna is a woman so obsessed with her job that she doesn't have time to iron her blouses and so resorts to wearing knitted tops constantly. It's a wonderfully specific word, but its specificity probably doesn't translate to English-speaking contexts.

There's also the hikikomori, a mostly Japanese phenomenon involving modern-day hermits that don't leave their bedrooms for years and years. People like this exist in English-speaking contexts, but we generally characterize these as people suffering from anxiety, as loners, or hermits. In addition, part of what makes a hikikomori is the high pressure and highly ritualized nature of Japanese society, a feature that is mostly absent in English-speaking contexts.

So, write to our good friends Merriam and Webster. Let's see if we can pack a little more utility into the English language.