Brain cell insulators are short-timers | Science News



Support credible science journalism.

Subscribe to Science News today.

News in Brief

Brain cell insulators are short-timers

Limited myelin production time may make it harder to repair nerve casings damaged by multiple sclerosis

2:09pm, June 24, 2013

SHORT-TIMER CELLS Cells called oligodendrocytes (shown in green) only spend five hours insulating nerve fibers (purple) with a waxy coating of myelin in the zebrafish central nervous system.

Sponsor Message

Cells that sheathe the brain’s electrical wires in a protective coating called myelin have a brief career, a new study of zebrafish finds.

Specialized brain cells known as oligodendrocytes wrap myelin around axons, long fibers that carry electrical messages between nerve cells. After only five hours, the cells bow out of the myelin production business, researchers from the University of Edinburgh report in the June 24 Developmental Cell.

Myelination is crucial for brain function, and when it breaks down, so does communication among brain cells. The new results could influence treatment strategies for diseases such as multiple sclerosis, which damages myelin. Instead of coaxing existing cells to replenish myelin, doctors may need to stimulate new oligodendrocyte growth in patients’ nervous systems.

In the new study, researchers made time-lapse movies of neural development in zebrafish by tagging electricity-generating neurons and myelin-making oligodendrocytes in the fishes’ spinal cords with different colors. A protein called Fyn kinase stimulates oligodendrocytes to produce more myelin sheaths for the first five hours of the cells’ existence, but the protein can’t persuade the cells to postpone retirement, the researchers discovered.


T. Czopka, C. ffrench-Constant, and D. A. Lyons. Individual oligodendrocytes have only a few hours in which to generate new myelin sheaths in vivo. Developmental Cell Vol. 25, June 24, 2013, p. 599. Doi: 10.1016/j.devcel.2013.05.013 [Go to]

Further Reading

L. Sanders. Brain’s white matter diminished in isolated mice. Science News Vol. 182, October 20, 2012, p. 18. [Go to]

L. Sanders. How exercise benefits nerve cells. Science News online, August 4, 2011. [Go to]

T. H. Saey. DNA comparison of identical twins finds no silver bullet for MS. Science News Vol. 177, May 22, 2010, p. 14. [Go to]

Get Science News headlines by e-mail.

More from Science News

From the Nature Index Paid Content