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19 February 2016

Groundbreaking research sheds new light on 'flexible' brain cells

A groundbreaking study from has shattered a long-standing assumption about brain cells known as astrocytes, opening the door to the possibility of reprogramming those cells to preserve brain function.

The discovery by scientists at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC) in Montreal,shows that the brain has a far greater ability to adapt and respond to changes than previously believed. The study could have significant implications for epilepsy, movement disorders and psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. 

The study, published in the current issue of the journal Science, shows that astrocytes, which play fundamental roles in nearly all aspects of brain function, can be adjusted by neurons in response to injury and disease. 

Previously, the long-held understanding was that the identity of cells is set during development and stays like that for life.. 

“Now we realise astrocytes change and can behave differently under certain conditions,” said researcher Dr Todd Farmer. “So could we coax them to behave the way we want them to?”

Dr Keith Murai, senior author on the study and director of the Centre for Research in Neuroscience at the MUHC, said the newly discovered flexibility means the cells are “potentially modifiable, which enables them to improve brain function or restore lost potential caused by disease.”

Having identified this novel mechanism, Dr Murai said the goal now is to see how it is affected in different brain diseases and determine if it can be harnessed to protect neurons and, ultimately, preserve brain function.