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Stereologic characterization and spatial distribution patterns of Betz cells in the human primary motor cortex.

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Department of Psychiatry, Neuropsychiatry Division, HUG Belle-Idée, University of Geneva School of Medicine, Geneva, Switzerland.


Betz cells are giant motoneurons located in layer Vb of the primate primary motor cortex. We conducted stereological analyses of Betz cells and neighboring pyramidal cells from the brains of six neurologically normal elderly humans to determine their volume, total number, and spatial distribution, and to relate these data to functional localization. The distribution of cellular volumes exhibits a bimodal pattern, delineating two different subpopulations. Betz cell volumes follow a mediolateral gradient, the largest Betz cells being located on the most medial part of the motor cortex. Additionally, the shape of Betz cells varies between the rostral and caudal parts of the primary motor cortex, supporting the notion that there are anatomically distinct zones in primary motor cortex. The total number of Betz cells per hemisphere accounts for about one-tenth of the total number of pyramidal cells in layer Vb. Analysis of spatial distribution using Voronoi tessellation revealed maximal clustering of Betz cells in a zone situated two-thirds from the midline along the mediolateral axis of the primary motor cortex. These data suggest that Betz cells have a discrete subregional distribution that may correspond to certain aspects of the functional parcellation of area 4. These results may offer a histological correlate of functional imaging studies and are relevant in the context of neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, progressive supranuclear palsy, and Guamanian amyotrophic lateral sclerosis/Parkinsonism-dementia, and in studies of normal brain aging.

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