Betz cells of the primary motor cortex.
Nolan M., Scott C., Hof PR., Ansorge O.
Betz cells, named in honor of Volodymyr Betz (1834-1894), who described them as "giant pyramids" in the primary motor cortex of primates and other mammalian species, are layer V extratelencephalic projection (ETP) neurons that directly innervate α-motoneurons of the brainstem and spinal cord. Despite their large volume and circumferential dendritic architecture, to date, no single molecular criterion has been established that unequivocally distinguishes adult Betz cells from other layer V ETP neurons. In primates, transcriptional signatures suggest the presence of at least two ETP neuron clusters that contain mature Betz cells; these are characterized by an abundance of axon guidance and oxidative phosphorylation transcripts. How neurodevelopmental programs drive the distinct positional and morphological features of Betz cells in humans remains unknown. Betz cells display a distinct biphasic firing pattern involving early cessation of firing followed by delayed sustained acceleration in spike frequency and magnitude. Few cell type-specific transcripts and electrophysiological characteristics are conserved between rodent layer V ETP neurons of the motor cortex and primate Betz cells. This has implications for the modeling of disorders that affect the motor cortex in humans, such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Perhaps vulnerability to ALS is linked to the evolution of neural networks for fine motor control reflected in the distinct morphomolecular architecture of the human motor cortex, including Betz cells. Here, we discuss histological, molecular, and functional data concerning the position of Betz cells in the emerging taxonomy of neurons across diverse species and their role in neurological disorders.