Summary, originally published by Gladstone Institutes
An important part of the brain’s immune system, cells called microglia, constantly extend and retract “branches” from their cell body to survey their environment. This continuous and rapid surveillance is a unique feature reserved for microglial cells in the brain. The longstanding theory has been that microglia perform this surveillance to sense invasion by an infectious agent or to sense trauma.
“This never made sense to me,” says Katerina Akassoglou, PhD, a senior investigator at Gladstone Institutes. “Why would a cell expend so much energy for something that might never happen? I always thought there must be another reason for microglia to be moving all the time, likely related to a normal function in the brain.”
As it turns out, Akassoglou was right.
In a recent study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, she and her team show that, in fact, surveillance by microglia helps prevent seizure activity (or hyperexcitability) in the brain. These findings could open new therapeutic avenues for several diseases, given that hyperexcitability is a feature of many neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, and autism.