Stories about: synapse development

Beth Stevens: A transformative thinker in neuroscience

When 2015 MacArthur “genius” grant winner Beth Stevens, PhD, began studying the role of glia in the brain in the 1990s, these cells—“glue” from the Greek—weren’t given much thought. Traditionally, glia were thought to merely protect and support neurons, the brain’s real players.

But Stevens, from the Department of Neurology and the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center at Boston Children’s Hospital, has made the case that glia are key actors in the brain, not just caretakers. Her work—at the interface between the nervous and immune systems—is helping transform how neurologic disorders like autism, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia are viewed.

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Microglia’s role in brain development: A neuroscientist looks back

The journal Neuron, celebrating its 25th anniversary, recently picked one influential neuroscience paper from each year of the publication. In this two-part series, we feature the two Boston Children’s Hospital’s scientists who made the cut. The Q&A below is adapted with kind permission from Cell Press.

Microglial cell with synapses
CAUGHT IN THE ACT: This microglial cell is from the lateral geniculate nucleus, which receives visual input from the eyes. The red and blue are synapses that it has engulfed. (Blue synapses represent inputs from the same-side eye; red, the opposite-side eye.)

In 2012, Beth Stevens, PhD, and colleagues provided a new understanding of how glial cells shape healthy brain development. Glia were once thought to be merely nerve “glue” (the meaning of “glia” from the Greek), serving only to protect and support neurons. “In the field of neuroscience, glia have often been ignored,” Stevens told Vector last year.

No longer. Stevens’s 2012 paper documented that microglia—glial cells best known for their immune function—are no passive bystanders. They get rid of excess connections, or synapses, in the developing brain the same way they’d dispatch an invading pathogen—by eating them.

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Immune cells “sculpt” brain circuits — by eating excess connections

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.

The involvement of microglia in the brain’s development has started to be recognized only recently. The latest research finds that microglia tune into the brain’s cues, akin to the way they survey their environment for invading microbes, and get rid of excess synapses the same way they’d dispatch these invaders—by eating them.

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Dodging the long-term cognitive effects of early-life seizures

Seizures seem to strengthen and “lock in” synapses too soon, leaving no room for development. (Image: Ice synapses, Joe Flintham/Flickr)

It’s well known that babies who have seizures soon after birth have roughly a 50-50 chance of developing long-term intellectual and memory deficits and cognitive disorders like autism. But until now, it wasn’t understood why these deficits occur, much less how to prevent them from happening.

In the December 14 Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at Children’s Hospital Boston, led by neurologist-neuroscientist Frances Jensen, detail in a rat model how early-life seizures affect brain development at the cellular and molecular level. But more to the point, they show that it might be possible to ward off these effects with drug treatment soon after the seizure – using a drug called NBQX or similar drugs that are already approved by the FDA.

Jenson was particularly interested in what seizures do to synapses, the connections between neurons that are rapidly developing in the infant brain.

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Why does brain development diverge in autism?

Many autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are marked by apparently normal development in infancy followed by a tragic loss of cognitive, social and language skills starting at 12 to 18 months of age. ASDs are increasingly seen as a disorder of synapses, the connections between neurons that together form brain circuits.

What hasn’t been clear is why children with ASDs go off the normal trajectory after meeting their early developmental milestones. But now there may be a hint of an explanation.

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