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Pop quiz: what kind of cells form a human brain? If you said neurons, you get part marks – the brain wouldn’t be half the organ it is if not for helper cells called glia.
But don’t feel too bad. In the past, researchers have also focussed primarily on the neuron in the starring role of brain development in a growing embryo. Now it turns out those glial cells should be getting a bigger cut of the glory.
A small team of researchers led by scientists from New York University turned to an oft-used model of animal development to study how a nervous system grows – the humble fruit fly.
Specifically, the researchers studied the visual system of flies called Drosophila in order to see how dividing cells became circuits tasked with mapping the light that falls on sensory nerves.
Usually this kind of process would be associated solely with cells that are already known to respond to chemical changes by passing on a signal – aka nerve cells.
Instead, the researchers found cells that usually stay backstage have a rather active role to play in the process.
“The results lead us to revise the often neuro-centric view of brain development to now appreciate the contributions for non-neuronal cells such as glia,” says researcher Vilaiwan Fernandes from New York University.
Glia come in a variety of forms, but all of them are dedicated to helping neurons do their all-important job of transmitting waves of electrochemistry.
This support crew isn’t a small team, either, making up at least half of the total number of cells in the brain.
The name itself comes from the Greek word for glue, but in recent years it’s become clear that they do far more than form a scaffold to hold nerve cells together, such as mopping up stray and unwanted chemicals, providing access to nutrients, and offering protection.
In spite of being recognised for its multitude of side-jobs, researchers have still viewed a distinction between the active circuitry of neurons and the simple servitude of the glia.
This new research suggests the boundary is a lot fuzzier than most had assumed.
“Indeed, our study found that fundamental questions in brain development with regard to the timing, identity, and coordination of nerve cell birth can only be understood when the glial contribution is accounted for,” says Fernandes.
This article and images were originally posted on [ScienceAlert] September 1, 2017 at 03:27AM
Credit to Author and ScienceAlert