New Research Project Will Study Nerve Cell-Glia Communication

Marisa Wexler MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler MS |

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A new research project, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), aims to better understand how different types of cells in the nervous system — specifically neurons and glia cells — communicate with each other and ultimately affect both motor and non-motor functions.

Its findings may have important implications for multiple sclerosis (MS) and other neurological diseases, the researchers said.

The nervous system — the brain, spinal cord, and nerves that run throughout the body — works to coordinate and control a plethora of processes, from movement to speech to conscious thought. The most well-known cells in the nervous system are neurons or nerve cells, which are long, wire-like cells that can send electrical signals down their lengths.

Neurons communicate with each other by releasing specialized chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters. These include some well-known molecules like dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate.

For decades, it was thought that neurons use neurotransmitters to send messages to other nerve cells — and that was that. The new project, however, challenges this idea.

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Specifically, the project — led by Leora Yetnikoff, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at the College of Staten Island (CSI), who was awarded an NIH grant— will investigate whether and how neurons communicate with glial cells.

Glial cells, or just glia, are another, more numerous type of cell found in the nervous system. There are several different types of glia, each with important functions. For example, oligodendrocytes are responsible for making myelin, the insulating “sheath” that wraps around neurons and gets damaged in MS, whereas other glial cells called microglia are the main infection-fighting cells in the brain.

“We are learning more and more that glial cells ‘listen’ to neuron signals, and actually change the way they interact with neurons based on their interpretation of these signals,” Yetnikoff said in a CSI press release.

Her project will specifically focus on communication between glia and dopamine neurons — that is, neurons which release the neurotransmitter dopamine as their main form of communication with other nerve cells.

“Almost everyone is familiar with the term ‘dopamine’ because of the roles of this neuron signal in rewards and various neuropsychiatric diseases,” Yetnikoff said. “Based on preliminary data, the hypothesis outlined in my proposal is that, in addition to their known conventional roles in communicating with other neurons, dopamine neurons also communicate with glial cells.”

That proposal earned Yetnikoff a three-year $391,000 SCORE Award from the NIH. The SCORE program seeks to increase the research competitiveness of faculty at institutions that usually receive limited NIH funding. Her winning project is titled “Axo-glial interactions between midbrain dopamine neuron axons and oligodendrocyte lineage cells in the corpus callosum.”

Yetnikoff said her project could have a significant impact on MS and other neurological diseases.

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“Because of dopamine’s wide-ranging roles in brain and behavior across species, including humans, this work will hold important implications about brain function and disease, including schizophrenia, drug addiction, and multiple sclerosis,” Yetnikoff said.

This is the first time that CSI faculty member has received a SCORE Award, according to the college, which noted that these NIH grants have gone to colleges and universities with a record of graduating biomedical students from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

“We have seen other CUNY [College of New York] colleges really benefit from SCORE funding, and the net result is a greater population of students who go on to careers in research and medicine,” said Dan McCloskey, PhD, chair of CSI’s department of psychology.

“Diverse students bring diverse perspectives, which means new ideas for the treatment and cure of diseases. Dr. Yetnikoff’s award is an important first step to open the door for more faculty and students to add to this workforce,” McCloskey added.

The SCORE award will allow Yetnikoff to increase the number of undergraduates receiving training in her lab.

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