THURSDAY, Feb. 10, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Abundant but poorly understood brain cells called glia turn out to be essential in the development of synapses -- critical connections that form between neurons in the brain during its development, according to a new study.
While scientists have long known that glia supported neurons in adults, this is the first time that researchers have identified the role of glia in forming the connections between neurons, says researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine, in California.
They announced their finding in the Feb. 11 issue of Cell.
The Stanford study also pinpointed two proteins called thrombospondins, made by glial cells that signal synapse formation. Mice genetically engineered to lack thrombospondins produced 40 pecent fewer synapses on average, compared with normal mice.
The findings may help lead to a better understanding of conditions such as epilepsy and addiction, where the brain forms too many synapses. The research could also lead to new ways to treat people with brain damage, the researchers said.
"We knew glia had a close relationship with neurons. We never thought that synapses would entirely fail to form without the glia," research leader Dr. Ben Barres, a professor of neurobiology, said in a prepared statement.
The U.S. National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has more about the brain.