May 01 2012

The World Science Festival: "Genius Cells in the Brain"

In brain reporting, neurons get all the glory. But they only make up a fraction of the material in your brain. What’s the other stuff for?

Glia, from the Greek word for glue, comprise 90% of the brain’s volume and almost half of all brain cells. Early anatomists assumed that the glia were present in the brain solely to protect delicate neuron fibers. That notion has been turned on its head. It is now evident that glial cells play vital roles in information processing, in the care and maintenance of neurons and in the sweep and release of neurotransmitters. They control neurogeneration, brain healing and more.

This snippet from a larger presentation on genius suggests that a density of glia in the brain may account for genius level functioning. Neurologist Douglas Fields describes intra-brain communication with a telephony metaphor: he likens neurons to land line telephones. Neuronal connections are only able to communicate serially. Glial cells, on the other hand, can communicate like cell phones: they broadcast. As a result, “astrocytes modulate neuron behavior. This could mean that calcium waves in astrocytes are our thinking mind.” 1

For a more thorough presentation on our current understanding of glial cells read

1. Scientific American, The Root of Thought: What Do Glial Cells Do?

Stanford Med School: The brain’s silent majority: how the other 90% of your brain works

(don’t miss the video on the right hand side of the page)

see also The Brain Top to Bottom: the cellular organization of the brain and researcher Ben Barres for more on the subject of glia

photo credit:
national center for mircroscopy and imaging research