Scientists explain cells’ role in brain communication

David Hyland

In what scientists touted as a “major step forward,” a study released Monday by University researchers provided a glimpse of how a majority of the cells in the brain communicate.
The study, spearheaded by physiologists Eric Newman and Kathleen Zahs, examined the communication between cells in the brain which help process information. The cells, called glial, were previously thought to play only a small role.
“Ninety percent of the cells in the brain that were thought not to play an active role in thinking may actually contribute to information processing in the brain,” Newman said, a professor in the physiology department.
In recent years, the study of glial cells has become increasingly prominent. Researchers have found a connection between the glial cells and illnesses such as brain cancer and Parkinson’s disease. Newman’s and Zahs’ two years of research was the cover story in the latest issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
Using tissue from the retinas of laboratory rats, the researchers studied the way glial cells communicated with each other and neurons.
When the cells were stimulated with a mechanical probe, the calcium level in the cell rose. Afterward, the levels of calcium in surrounding cells grew, spreading like a wave. This led researchers to conclude that glial cells influence the electrical activity of neurons or help modulate the thinking process.
“We don’t know in what ways glial cells could participate in information processing, but they do change the activity of neurons,” Newman said.
Zahs, an assistant physiology professor, said recent studies linked the malfunction of glial cells with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and brain cancer. The researchers said a better understanding of glial cells could lead to treatments for such illnesses.
Previously, scientists thought the glial cells were “housekeepers,” cleaning up after the neurons which sent the messages. Newman’s and Zahs’ experiments found that glial cells play a collaborative role in communicating.
“They are doing ground-breaking work that highlights what is potentially a totally new way of thinking of the functioning of the glial cells,” said Jon Gottesman, associate physiology professor.