Shifting views of brain cells, and other fresh perspectives

eva emerson
Sandy Schaffer
For far too long, the brain’s cells have been divided into doers and helpers. Nerve cells, with their fancy electrochemical signals and complex circuitry, have attracted the attention and awe of scientists trying to understand the biophysical processes underlying thought and memory. Glial cells (the helpers) have seemed less interesting. 

Named for glue, glial cells were considered the scaffolding, the housekeepers, the maintenance crew, the infrastructure. They worked in the background so that nerve cells could sparkle and shine.

That simplistic view has been slowly changing, as research has revealed the surprising range of roles that glial cells play. The deeper scientists look at the various types of glia, the more important these cells appear. Over the years, Science News has covered a steady stream of reports hinting that glial cells deserve a share of the limelight. Ashley Yeager describes the product of all these studies: a shift away from a neuron-centric perspective on the brain as well as a better appreciation of its diverse nature. Her story notes that glial cells can actually modulate nerve cell firing, helping to control the activity of the brain’s star players. The details emerging from the latest work are sure to yield more insights as scientists continue their struggle to understand the mind.

Another type of new perspective appears in the article about an often-fatal freshwater amoeba. Some scientists think that the so-called brain-eating amoeba actually kills by triggering an immune reaction that swells the brain, Laura Sanders reports. That point of view suggests different tactics for treating the rare infection.

Two spacecraft also provide some unparalleled perspectives in this issue. Early data from New Horizons offer up a tantalizing view of Pluto covered by flowing ice, haze and a reddish hue. And data just released from the comet lander Philae bring a firsthand account from the surface of a comet. Also, just in time for summer’s last hurrah, scientists have analyzed mosquitoes’ redundant and persistent hunting strategies, explaining why it’s so hard to avoid getting bit. No doubt the insects gain an edge from their trusty glial cells.

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