Scientists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in Germany have discovered a new signaling pathway in the brain that plays an important role in learning and the processing of sensory input. It was already known that distinct glial cells receive information from neurons. However, it was not known that these same glial cells also transmit information to neurons. The glia release a specific protein fragment that influences neuronal cross-talk, most likely by binding to the synaptic contacts that neurons use for communication. Disruption of this information flow from the glia results in changes in the neural network, for example during learning processes. The research team composed of Dr. Dominik Sakry, Dr. Angela Neitz, Professor Jacqueline Trotter, and Professor Thomas Mittmann unravelled the underlying mechanism, from the molecular and cellular level to the network and finally the resulting behavioral consequences. Their findings constitute major progress in understanding complex pathways of signal transmission in the brain. In mammalian brains, glial cells outnumber nerve cells, but their functions are still largely unelucidated. A group of glial cells, so-called oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPC), develop into the oligodendrocytes which ensheathe neuronal axons with a protective myelin layer, thus promoting the rapid transmission of signals along the axon. Interestingly, these OPCs are present as a stable proportion – some five to eight percent of all cells in all brain regions, including adult brains. The Mainz-based researchers decided to take a closer look at these OPCs. Their research results were published online on November 11, 2014 in an open-access article in PLOS Biology.
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