Critical connections that neurons form in the brain during development turn out to rely on common but overlooked cells, called glia. These cells were known to support the neurons in adults, but had never been fingered as players in forming the connections between neurons, known as synapses.
The Stanford University School of Medicine researchers who conducted the work, led by Ben Barres, MD, PhD, professor of neurobiology, also discovered two of the proteins made by glial cells that signal synapse formation. This study, published in the Feb. 11 issue of Cell, could help researchers understand diseases such as epilepsy and addiction in which too many synapses form.
"We knew glia had a close relationship with neurons," Barres said. "We never thought the synapses would entirely fail to form without the glia." In fact, that relationship was considered so unlikely that the grant application was turned down six times because the work was considered too risky. The research was eventually funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, whose interest in the work stems from the possibility that new synapses are what keep recovered addicts craving drugs.
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