While cholesterol has a bad reputation for clogging up arteries and causing heart disease, this fatty molecule is an essential part of all cell membranes. Scientists have now found to their surprise that cholesterol may also regulate when and where nerve cells in the brain form the vital junctions known as synapses.
Equally unforeseen, say investigators, is their finding that non-nerve cells called glia seem to provide the cholesterol that controls synapse building.
"We were definitely shocked," says Frank W. Pfrieger of the Max-Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin. He leads a French-German collaboration that reports the new findings at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego this week and in the Nov. 9 Science.