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More than just glue, glial cells challenge neuron's top slot

Welcome to this week's Biomed Bites, a weekly feature that highlights some of Stanford's most innovative research and introduces Scope readers to innovators in a variety of disciplines. 

In the brain, a class system still rules. The neurons are the elites, zapping off important messages to their neighbors, creating memories and enabling thoughts. Then there's the glial cells. Glia is Latin for glue, and for decades, glial cells were thought to simply hold up the stately neurons, keeping them comfortable and cleaning up after their messes.

Yet an inner-brain revolution is in the works, thanks in part to Ben Barres, MD, PhD, who leads Stanford's Department of Neurobiology. Barres has been studying glial cells since he was a graduate student at Harvard University, and he's shown these "support" cells play an integral role in the brain. Here's Barres in the video above:

The idea is that they're just kind of sticking the neurons together and boring. And I just got curious about how could 90 percent of the cells in the brain be boring and not doing anything important...

To get at this question, we developed new methods that allowed us for the first time to separate the brain cells apart into populations of neurons in one dish and populations of glial cells in another culture dish. That way we could ask, 'What do the neurons do by themselves?,' and 'What do they need the glial cells for?"

To our surprise, we found the neurons were completely unable to form synapses by themselves. They absolutely needed to have the glial cells.

Now, the scientists in Barres' lab are using their insight into the importance of glial cells to develop drugs that might alleviate debilitative diseases like Alzheimer's.

Learn more about Stanford Medicine's Biomedical Innovation Initiative and about other faculty leaders who are driving forward biomedical innovation  here.

Previously: Double vision: How the brain creates a single view of the world, Distinction with a difference: Transgender neurobiologist picked for National Academy of Science membership and Malfunctioning glia -- brain cells that aren't nerve cells -- may contribute big time to ALS and other neurological disorders

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