Thinking Microglia

For most of us the word brain is synonymous with nerve cells or neurons. All of us are well familiar with the notion of the brain as a mega-computer where billions of neurons govern our life, from simplest tasks to the rare moments of discoveries. It may appear surprising to hear that the function of brain and neurons would not be possible without cells that do not participate in our thinking directly. Instead, these cells, that are called microglia, function as watchdogs of neuron’s functionality and health and remove neurons that stop acting properly.

The pruning of neuronal networks, conducted by microglia, is essential for normal brain development and function and keeps our minds healthy. The ability to recognize non-functioning neurons must be highly precise and exclude any effects on healthy neighboring neurons. How this precision is achieved, and what kind of signals guide microglia activity remains largely unknown. Understanding of the mechanism of microglia neuron interaction is important for the development of better treatments for neurodegenerative disorders. Activated and misguided glia cells could be responsible for the death of neurons during brain development, brain inflammation or age-related neurodegeneration. On the other hand, activated glia cells, if controlled properly, could be used for the re-shaping of neuronal networks damaged by neurodegeneration. Learning about the processes that guide microglia activity and targeting of functionally distinct neurons could provide a very powerful tool in fighting diseases such as Alzheimer or Parkinson disease. Besides removing neurons, glia cells are also a trove of various factors that support neuron well-being. Identification of these factors can help to improve neuron survival and hence keep our brain functioning well during old age.

These are the reasons why my lab has decided to focus on microglia and its role in brain function. Our aim is to understand the  “language” of communication between neurons and microglia cells. While working with mice, we keep our focus on the discovery of gene regulatory mechanisms that enable symbiotic neuron-microglia interaction for the benefit of healthy brain function. We believe that our findings will lead to generation of novel therapeutic approaches for treatment of neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases. Our work is supported by the prestigious National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award and the Seaver Autism foundation. 

Anne Schaefer, MD
Assistant Professor of Neuroscience and Psychiatry and a Seaver Fellow at the Friedman Brain Institute at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

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