The above movie shows an immune cell caught in the act of tending the brain—it’s just eaten away unnecessary connections, or synapses, between neurons.
That’s not something these cells, known as microglia, were previously thought to do. As immune cells, it was thought that their job was to rid the body of unwanted pathogens and debris, by engulfing and digesting them.
Mitochondria, as you may know, are the engines that power cells. They’re always in motion, supplying energy wherever it’s needed. In brain cells, mitochondria especially have to hoof it around, traveling out into the axons and dendrites to fuel the energy-intensive task of communicating with other cells.
But in at least one form of Parkinson’s disease, that movement becomes a problem: the genetic mutations causing the disease leave neurons unable to make the fidgety organelles hold still. Without this ability, the dopamine-producing neurons in the brain’s substantia nigra can’t safely dispose of mitochondria when they go bad, and the neurons die or become impaired.
“When damaged, mitochondria produce reactive oxygen species that are highly destructive, and can fuse with healthy mitochondria and contaminate them, too,” explains Tom Schwarz, of the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center at Children’s Hospital Boston, senior investigator on a study published in Cell today. “It’s the equivalent of an environmental disaster in the cell.” …