Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Image post 6: spinal cord cell reaches for its neighbor

While many posts from The Mix feature a science story, we also share images coming out of UAB research. Below is a description of what we are looking at and related hints about how the brain forms in the womb. 

Pictured here is one star-shaped astrocyte "reaching out" to another in a dish. The most abundant cell type in the brain and spinal cord, astrocytes are not nerve cells, but instead provide support, nutrients and protection to nerve cells. Recent work has shown that astrocytes help to shape the messages being passed from nerve cell to nerve cell, and that problems with astrocyte function may throw off nerve cell performance.

In her research, Michelle Olsen, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB Department of Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology, seeks to determine how the overlap between nerve cells and astrocytes contributes to normal brain development, and to brain abnormalities when something goes wrong.

Dr. Olsen's experiments with isolated cells seek to model processes underway in the brain as it forms during development. Nerve cells are known to put out "roots" that reach out, find nearby cells and link up to form signaling networks. The above picture suggests that astrocytes do something similar.

Named for their star shape, astrocytes put out extensions that wrap around synapses, the gaps between nerve cells in signaling pathways. Each nerve cell in a pathway sends an electric pulse down itself until it reaches a synapse, a gap between itself and the next cell in line. When it reaches the cell's end, the pulse triggers the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters that float across the gap. Arriving at the other side, they cause the downstream nerve cell to “fire” and, depending on the synapse type, to either pass on or stop the message.

In this way, each synapse between nerve cells “decides” whether or not a message continues down that pathway. The balance of messages passed on (excitation) and messages halted (inhibition) is crucial to brain function. One theory has it that astrocytes influence that balance at synapses with their own set of extensions and transmitters.

Dr. Olson captured the image using an inverted Zeiss Observer microscope. 

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