The Glial cell is oftentimes the overlooked member of discussions about the brain. It is relegated to the pile of things that we put stuff in when we don't have enough time to talk about the brain. Although it is not best loved, it toils on to ensure our brain does what it does best - allow us to be us.
So what does that gelatinous goo that is glial cells do for us? More than most would guess.
Play Clean up. This is the role that glial cells are best known as. The microglia cells look around the brain for discarded bits and harmful junk. They are deeply responsible for ridding the brain of the various plaques and tangles that are implicated in various neurodegenerative disorders. If you don't love glial cells now, you might want to have a change of heart.
Help the neurons get to where they need to go. As the brain develops, some of the neurons need to migrate to where they belong. Once the neuron is formed, it follows the cable-like structure of the radial glial cell that shows it where it needs to go. Once the neurons are in place, the radial glial cells transform into other types of glial cells that will be needed in the future. Some of the lucky radial glial cells transform into neurons that reside in the upper-most region of the cerebral cortex.
Help get the message across. Oligodendrocytes act as a neuronal insulator which helps speed along communications and keep them from deteriorating along the way. Recent research suggests that Olie's will also break off parts of themselves at the request of neurons to help facilitate communication and the use of neurotransmitters by other nearby neurons.
Keep us well-balanced in the brain. The glial cells known as astrocytes help feed and care for neurons by helping to facilitate the flow of oxygen and carbon dioxide to and from neurons. When mouse astrocytes were triggered in a way to suggest an increase in CO2 in the blood, they responded by prompting surrounding neurons to encourage an increase in breathing rate to facilitate a drop in CO2 levels. Who knew glial cells coax us to breathe?
Making a bigger impact or does this sounds a little like science fiction to you? In recent research with mice, the mouse brains were injected with human glial cells. Yup, you guessed, when tested for intelligence later, the human glial mice performed better and faster than their pure mouse colleagues. What would Michael Creighton think? What the researchers found was that the human glial mice neurons had changed how frequently and forcefully their neurons were firing. The result? A "super-charged forebrain."
The next time your memory is working well, you feel smart and sassy, or you are just happy to have a good brain, don't forget to thank your glial cells, along with your neurons. They make an amazing partnership that are integral to who we are. Don't forget to mention it in class.
Link to the Nautilus article this blog comes from: The Neuron's Secret partner