JUN 26, 2020 7:23 PM PDT

New Method Identifies Different Types of Nerve Support Cells

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Neurons are a well-studied cell type in the brain. But another type of brain cell called glia has received less attention, even though they serve a critical function, acting as a support system for neurons. Glial cells do not send the electrical signals that neurons do, but they help ensure that they're transmitted. There are specific types of glial cells that function at the synapse - the point of contact between neurons, where biochemical signals are sent.

Two molecular markers, indicated by the red and green fluorescence, are found together only in synaptic Schwann cells. Together they offer a "bar code" that identifies Schwann cells, an important subtype of glia. Credit  Valdez Lab / Center for Translational Neuroscience / Brown University

Scientists have now found a way to differentiate between specific kinds of glial cells, which offer new methods for studying their function. The work has been reported in eLife. It may help scientists learn more about how glial cells are involved in the restoration of nerve function after injury, aging, or disease.

"This discovery will serve as a springboard to addressing fundamental questions and developing assays to speed the discovery of therapeutics intended to preserve and restore the normal function of neuronal circuits," said the study leader Gregorio Valdez, an associate professor of molecular biology, cell biology and biochemistry at Brown University, who is affiliated with the new Center for Translational Neuroscience.

This work has shown that one type of glial cell that is found where muscle and nerve fibers meet, called Schwann cells, are the only cells in muscles that produce two specific molecules. These molecules can now act as a kind of identifier that can pinpoint this subtype of cell, said Valdez.

"What this means is that we can finally figure out how all three cellular constituents of the synapse -- neurons, muscle, and glia -- talk to each," Valdez said. "We now have a unique and important tool for identifying this critical component of the synapse. This is essential for knowing when and where to target to ensure synapses function appropriately."

This tool could prove especially useful in future work; Valdez noted that it has potential in research that investigates the pathology of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), or how movement degenerates as we age, for example. This method may also help identify other markers for different types of glial cells.

"While our primary focus was the neuromuscular synapse, we also gathered initial evidence indicating that synaptic glia cells in the brain can be labeled and targeted using the same approach," said Valdez. "If true, this discovery could be of immense consequence for treating a myriad of brain conditions, including those involving cognitive decline due to normal aging and Alzheimer's Disease."

Sources: AAAS/Eurekalert! via Brown University, eLife

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on 28 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 60 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
JUL 09, 2020
Cardiology
How Exercise Can Affect Blood Chemistry
JUL 09, 2020
How Exercise Can Affect Blood Chemistry
Nowadays, the health benefits of exercise seem to be advertised everywhere. While it is true that exercise has many bene ...
JUL 26, 2020
Neuroscience
How COVID-19 Causes Loss of Smell
JUL 26, 2020
How COVID-19 Causes Loss of Smell
Temporary loss of smell, known as anosmia, is one of the most common early indicators of COVID-19. Although some say it ...
AUG 17, 2020
Cell & Molecular Biology
A New Kind of Taste Cell is Discovered
AUG 17, 2020
A New Kind of Taste Cell is Discovered
Once, it was thought that the tongue had zones that sensed different tastes. Researchers have learned a lot more about h ...
SEP 01, 2020
Cell & Molecular Biology
Smell Cells Are Especially Good at Fighting the Flu
SEP 01, 2020
Smell Cells Are Especially Good at Fighting the Flu
All over the body, cells line organs and vessels, forming protective barriers. But pathogens like the flu have gained th ...
SEP 07, 2020
Immunology
CRISPR Pumps the Brakes on the Immune System to Support Gene Therapies
SEP 07, 2020
CRISPR Pumps the Brakes on the Immune System to Support Gene Therapies
The ability to edit the human genome using CRISPR has been heralded as a revolution in medicine. However, one of the big ...
SEP 14, 2020
Cell & Molecular Biology
Learning More About How Cells Use Phase Separation
SEP 14, 2020
Learning More About How Cells Use Phase Separation
It was once thought that cellular machines called organelles, which are structures bound by membranes, directed most of ...
Loading Comments...