When it comes to studying the brain, nerve cells, or neurons, have taken centre stage. Their large, regular shapes make them easier to study than other cells, such as glia. Glial cells have received little attention, despite outnumbering neurons three to one. Now scientists are beginning to recognise their importance. Microglia (green), a type of glial cell, have arm-like extensions that can reach out to connect with nearby neurons (pink). They ‘prune’ damaged or infected neurons, as a gardener might prune damaged branches from trees. This helps to keep our brains healthy, although excessive pruning can cause damage. Researchers at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre have shown microglia are unusually active in the brains of people who have or are at risk of schizophrenia. And in a review paper in January, the team suggest social stress increases microglial activity and may play a role in the onset of mental health conditions.
Written by Deborah Oakley
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