Brandeis leads collaborative team in researching chemical processes in brain

September 16, 2005

Waltham, Mass. - Brandeis University announced today a $3.1 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to lead a collaborative, multi-institution project researching the role of glial cells in the brain. Once thought to be merely support cells in the central nervous system, glial cells are now known to be actively involved in chemical communication with and between neurons and other glia.

"This project really represents a greater emphasis on studying the molecular basis of life processes," said principal investigator and Brandeis professor of chemistry Irving Epstein. "It's a model for interdisciplinary research as well as multi-institution collaboration." In addition to Epstein, the team includes scientists from Duke University, the University of Chicago and the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana-Champaign.

The central nervous system (CNS) consists of neurons and glial cells, although glial cells are about ten times as numerous as neurons and make up about half the weight of the brain. While scientists have studied neurons for decades with great devotion, glial cells, discovered in 1891, have remained in the shadows until recently, poorly understood and perhaps vastly underappreciated.

Glial cells help keep neurons healthy, provide physical support to neurons, regulate neurotransmitter levels and remove dead cells and other debris from the CNS, among other functions. This project aims to deepen understanding of the role of glial cells in individual synapses and in neural networks.

"We will be studying the role of glial cells in the brain from the molecular level to the network level," noted Epstein. "Now we believe that, like neurons, glial cells can also transmit information; our goal is to build structured networks of these cells to study how electrical impulses propagate through these networks."

Toward that end, the team will also develop and employ methods from biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics to understand these complex chemical and biological networks.

"This is exciting new science because there is much to learn about glial cells; they may be integral to how information is transmitted in the brain and it's conceivable that some diseases have their origin in malfunctioning glial cells," explained Epstein.

Brandeis University

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