In the world of brain research, it's been all about neurons--those electrically excitable cells that process information--for the past 100 years. But a few lone wolves are more intrigued by the brain's "glial cells," so named for the 19th century belief that these non-neuron brain cells were simply the "glue" that held everything else together.
Alfonson Araque, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Neuroscience and holder of the Robert and Elaine Larson Neuroscience Research Chair, is one of those investigators taking the path less charted; one who believes that solutions for brain diseases could lie in the shadowy world of the glia.
"We do know that glial cells are more important than once thought," says Araque, who came to the University last fall from Madrid's prestigious Cajal Institute. He has already shown that astrocytes, a type of glial cell, regulate how neurons communicate with one another. Now he's working on defining the properties of that communication.
"When something goes wrong, is it becasue the glial cells are not functioning properly? Once we fully understand the role of those cells, it may bring us new understanding of how brain diseases develop," he says, "and how to treat them."
"I'm very optimistic about the future," says Dr. Araque. "I believe we've opened a door that will lead us to new understanding of how the brain functions and, ultimately, to treat or even cure serious brain diseases."
(Taken from Neurosciences News, Fall 2014, p. 4, published by the UM Foundation)