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Rethinking which cells are the conductors of learning and memory

Brain cells called glia may be center stage when it comes to how humans learn and remember

10:35am, August 11, 2015
Neurons and glia

SUPPORT SYSTEM  Neurons (blue) mingle with two kinds of glia: astrocytes (red) and oligodendrocytes (green) in this immunofluorescence microscopy image of rat hippocampal tissue.

A mouse scurries across a round table rimmed with Dixie cup–sized holes. Without much hesitation, the rodent heads straight for the hole that drops it into a box lined with cage litter. Any other hole would have led to a quick fall to the floor. But this mouse was more than lucky. It had an advantage — human glial cells were growing in its brain.

Glia are thought of as the support staff for the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, which transmit and receive the brain’s electrical and chemical signals. Named for the Greek term for “glue,” glia have been known for nearly 170 years as the cells that hold the brain’s bits together. Some glial cells help feed neurons. Other glia insulate nerve cell branches with myelin. Still others attack brain invaders responsible for infection or injury. Glial cells perform many of the brain’s most important maintenance jobs.

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