Stimulating the brain

By Chris Beauchamp

Researchers at the University of Calgary are unlocking new insights into brain function, one cell at a time.

Dr. Jaideep Bains, assistant professor of physiology and biophysics at the Faculty of Medicine, led a research study on the role of glial cells in brain function. The study, appearing in the July issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, suggests glia have a greater impact on communication within the brain than previously thought.

“When cells talk to each other they release chemicals that turn into electrical signals,” explained Bains. “We’ve learned it’s not just neuron to neuron.”

Glial cells make up roughly two thirds of the human brain yet have been nearly ignored by scientists, said Bains, adding neurons have been studied more extensively because they are outwardly more active.

“We even call it neural science, which is the science of neurons,” he noted. “We don’t call it glial science.”

Bains’ research has shown glial cells in slices of rodent brain can be stimulated to release the chemical messenger ATP which helps neurons permanently increase their ability to communicate with each other.

The findings are significant because of the way the brain stores certain information. Knowing that glial cells are a key component to the way neurons modify signals creates another area researchers can look at when developing treatments for certain neurolonal disorders.

“I think it provides a new target,” said Bains, noting certain treatments for disorders like schizophrenia and depression have been shown to stimulate glial production of ATP. Previously it was not understood why the treatments were effective.

“Before you do the tricky stuff you have to find the rules about how everything works,” he said. “This is just curiosity-driven, find-out-how-things-work, type of research.”

Bains noted there has been en-ough data generated from their research to keep his team going.

“The volume of data is huge,” he said. “That’ll probably provide us some nice clues about what’s going on.”

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