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Glial cells and Myelin

September 30, 2013

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BrainTalksUBC is excited to present Alex MacKay and Dr. Clare Beasley for our next talk, on October 17, 2013.  They will be talking about glial cells and myelin, two new fascinating topics in neuroimaging, neuroscience, and psychiatry research.  Cutting edge research in this area is changing the way we understand the human brain, and how it works, in both health and illness.

Myelin.  What is it?  Myelin is the layer that surrounds a nerve sheath, allowing electrical signals in the nerves to occur at a faster rate compared to an un-myelinated nerve.

From NIH webpage

Image from The Scientist

Glial cells, also called neuroglia, are companions to neurons that create myelin.  They surround the neurons like tiny filigree lace, reaching out to wrap around neuronal axons to hug them with the insulating fat of myelin, or remove waste products, among several other functions.  Once thought to be only support cells, they have more recently been discovered to have functions of their own, including assisting neurons to form synapses with each other.

In a recent article “Nature’s little secret”, in MacLean’s special edition “The New Brain”, Charlie Gillis describes the discovery of glial cell communication.  In 1991, Richard Robitaille turned off the lights in his lab, hoping to see neurons emit bright flashes of light as calcium, labeled with a green-glowing chemical, triggered synaptic signalling. Instead, he saw glial cells glow with the green hue, and left the lab disappointed.  Only later, when talking to his supervisor, did he realize that the glial cells were lighting up for a reason.  Further research in the field revealed that the glial cells coordinated neuronal functions involved in memory, thought, and decision-making.

Einstein’s brain had 73% more glial cells by volume than the average of other brains, as found in a comparison between his brain and that of 11 other normal male adults, a comparison executed by Marian Diamond at the University of California.  Astrocytes were later identified as key glial cells, being found to “talk back” to neurons.  In addition, animals located higher on the evolutionary chain were found to have higher numbers of astrocytes.

However, Ken McCarthy found that genetically engineered mice whose astrocytes did not properly signal with calcium, had no change to their cognitive processing.  However, glia have been found to be important in humans in the formation in memory, and appear to be at the root of illnesses such as Schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.  R. Douglas Fields, an expert on glia, recently wrote an article on why glia should be included in the newly announced, in April of this year, BRAIN project.  You can read more online on the Nature site at:

astrocytes and oligodendrocytes

Talks on October 17, 2013

To attend the talks, please follow the RSVP link:


Title: In vivo Magnetic resonance imaging of water in myelin


Myelin plays a key role in the efficient transmission of nerve signals; consequently the ability to monitor myelination in vivo has considerable value for following neurodevelopment and neurodegenerative processes. The magnetic resonance (MR) properties of water that is trapped between the bilayers of myelin are different from the MR properties of the rest of the water in central nervous system tissue making it possible to create images of myelin water using MR.  This talk will report on applications of myelin water imaging in multiple sclerosis, dyslexia, schizophrenia and phenylketonuria.

Alex MacKay is a UBC professor with a joint appointment in Radiology and Physics & Astronomy. He is the Director of the UBC MRI Research Centre. His research program is dedicated to the use of MR to investigate pathological processes in brain and he has been doing myelin water imaging for more than two decades.

Title: “Glial Cell Pathology in Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder”


While neuroimaging studies have reported white matter abnormalities in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, the cellular and molecular correlates of these alterations remain unclear. Dr. Beasley will discuss evidence from human post-mortem brain studies indicating that glial abnormalities lie at the heart of white matter pathology in these disorders.

Dr. Beasley is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UBC and a Canadian Institutes for Health Research New Investigator. Work in her lab at the BC Mental Health and Addictions Research Institute focuses on identifying neuropathological features associated with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder using post-mortem human brain tissue. In particular she is interested in white matter pathology, brain inflammation and glial cells.

  1. Rosalie Wong permalink
    September 30, 2013 6:10 am

    Hi,   Please give me information regarding the time and place for these two talks.   Thanks.   Rosalie


    • September 30, 2013 6:43 am

      Follow the RSVP link. All talks are listed under the “Talks” button at the top right-hand corner of the website.

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