Comparative morphology of gigantopyramidal neurons in primary motor cortex across mammals

J Comp Neurol. 2018 Feb 15;526(3):496-536. doi: 10.1002/cne.24349. Epub 2017 Nov 26.


Gigantopyramidal neurons, referred to as Betz cells in primates, are characterized by large somata and extensive basilar dendrites. Although there have been morphological descriptions and drawings of gigantopyramidal neurons in a limited number of species, quantitative investigations have typically been limited to measures of soma size. The current study thus employed two separate analytical approaches: a morphological investigation using the Golgi technique to provide qualitative and quantitative somatodendritic measures of gigantopyramidal neurons across 19 mammalian species from 7 orders; and unbiased stereology to compare the soma volume of layer V pyramidal and gigantopyramidal neurons in primary motor cortex between 11 carnivore and 9 primate species. Of the 617 neurons traced in the morphological analysis, 181 were gigantopyramidal neurons, with deep (primarily layer V) pyramidal (n = 203) and superficial (primarily layer III) pyramidal (n = 233) neurons quantified for comparative purposes. Qualitatively, dendritic morphology varied considerably across species, with some (sub)orders (e.g., artiodactyls, perissodactyls, feliforms) exhibiting bifurcating, V-shaped apical dendrites. Basilar dendrites exhibited idiosyncratic geometry across and within taxonomic groups. Quantitatively, most dendritic measures were significantly greater in gigantopyramidal neurons than in superficial and deep pyramidal neurons. Cluster analyses revealed that most taxonomic groups could be discriminated based on somatodendritic morphology for both superficial and gigantopyramidal neurons. Finally, in agreement with Brodmann, gigantopyramidal neurons in both the morphological and stereological analyses were larger in feliforms (especially in the Panthera species) than in other (sub)orders, possibly due to specializations in muscle fiber composition and musculoskeletal systems.

Keywords: Golgi method; RRID:nif-0000-10294; brain evolution; dendrite; morphometry; neocortex; stereology.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cell Count
  • Dendrites / ultrastructure
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mammals / anatomy & histology
  • Motor Cortex / cytology*
  • Pyramidal Cells / classification
  • Pyramidal Cells / cytology
  • Pyramidal Cells / ultrastructure*
  • Silver Staining
  • Species Specificity