Nerve trauma and how glial cells can help

Some people have asked me why I only share my artistic side on my website. Where is the science? After all, I should start practicing what I preach and explaining science to people who don’t deal with it every day.

Well, exciting news! Starting this week, I will be alternating posts where I show updates on my artistic adventures with with ones on some interesting news from the field of neuroscience. I will do my best to present the scientific findings in layman’s terms to make it easier to understand.

As I have mentioned before, I have temporarily changed fields in my scientific career, so I haven’t really been following neuroscience-related literature. But now I am making an effort to bring it back into my life and would like to invite you along.

As I opened up Nature Neuroscience journal last week, this article caught my attention. Let’s take a look.

Original article

First, some background info

Axon (or nerve) injury is near and dear to my heart. It is what I studied while earning my graduate degree. It has been known for a few decades that after acute injury (such as a car accident), cells in the central nervous system (neurons) face great challenges in their attempts to regenerate. In contrast, an injury in the peripheral nervous system (let’s say in your leg), while unpleasant, can have a much better prognosis.

Here are a few reasons why.

Image source: Strittmatter (2010) Eukaryon. 6
  1. In the central nervous system (CNS), destruction of myelin (which insulates neurons for proper electrical activity) leads to exposure of inhibitory molecules that act as “DON’T GROW” signals to neurons. In the peripheral nervous system (PNS), myelin is made by a different cell type (Schwann cells) and is less toxic.
  2. In the PNS, myelin debris is efficiently cleared by the immune system cells called macrophages. In the CNS, myelin debris is left behind and keeps impeding neuronal growth.
  3. Adult CNS neurons have much worse growth capabilities than their counterparts in the PNS. A lot of them also die off after the injury.

Now back to the article…

First of all, looking at the title, what are Schwann cells? Well, they are the cells that produce the myelin sheaths to wrap around and insulate the neurons in the peripheral nervous system (shown in yellow on the schematic above). They aid in faster conductance and provide nutrients to the neurons. Over the years, more and more important functions of these cells are being discovered.

According to this article, Schwann cells can support injured neurons and provide them with extra energy by upregulating a metabolic process called glycolysis. After injury, Schwann cells alter their metabolism and, at least in part, protect the neurons from death by supplying them with extra nutrients.

I particularly loved the first figure in this paper, which shows a really cool system in which you can use a microfluidic device to isolate the neuronal cell bodies and their extensions (axons). The cell bodies are then injured and essentially cut off from their axons. Amazingly, if you co-culture Schwann cells in the axonal compartment of the device, these axons survive and look pretty healthy for at least 24 hours. They also show good expression of gold standard axonal markers (beta III – tubulin and NF-H), despite the fact that they have virtually been “beheaded”.

Adapted from Figure 1 in the article

I actually used these microfluidic devices in graduate school as well. When I first saw them online, I loved the approach so much that I had to think of a way to make them relevant for my project!

While it was not mentioned in the article, I would be really curious to see if similar functions have been observed in oligodendrocytes, which insulate the neurons in the central nervous system. Maybe the processes are less efficient there, making it more difficult for CNS neurons to recover.

I tried to make this summary really brief and to the point, but if you have questions, please leave a comment below and let’s chat!

Here’s a piece of art that I made as a throwback to the time when I studied axonal injury and regeneration.

Tortured, 2017

3-dimensional bead work on satin. Framed. 12″ x 12″

You can read more about it and purchase it here.

Art is my emotional outlet and my oasis.  I use art to express my feelings and work through life issues.  Come join me on this journey of letting go of control and letting the creative process take over.  You will get access to all of the behind the scenes footage and see the major breakthroughs that translate into new artwork.

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