Brain’s mysterious support cells underly some diseases

Neurons forming from embryonic stem cells | Courtesy of Guoping Fan at the University of California, Los Angeles

Scientific American ran a piece in their blog yesterday that’s both a great read about the brain’s support cells and also a good explanation for why therapies for diseases of the brain progress slowly.

The piece is about support cells called glia that make up the majority of cells in the brain. They don’t relay signals or hold memories, but they do support the cells that carry out those more well known tasks of the brain. The piece describes the role of glia in diseases:

Recent studies have found that a certain type of glial cell, known as an astrocyte, sends out some of the chemical signals that build up our sense of sleepiness throughout the day – and that inhibiting these signals can counteract some symptoms of depression. Other studies have found that glia can spark seizures, regulate blood flow in the brain, and gather protectively around damaged neurons. And in 2013, researchers who transplanted human astrocytes into mouse brains found that their modified mice learned more quickly and formed more memories than ordinary mice. Glia, it seems, may be starring players in their own right.

Although quite a bit is known about the cells, a lot of mysteries remain.  In diseases like ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and multiple sclerosis, any potential therapy will need to target these glial cells. And to target them, scientists need to understand what makes those cells tick. (This need to understand the basic biology underlying diseases is what drives our Basic Biology funding program).

The piece has some great descriptions of how science unfolds and how scientists are still piecing together the role of different cell types in diseases of the brain.


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