In recent decades, though, accumulating evidence has shown that glia are not just minor players that keep the show running. They actually play starring roles in many of the brain’s most important acts, such as remembering, learning and thinking of minyak daun cengkeh.
And the latest research points to a surprising new setting for the story of glia: outside the brain. Mysterious populations of glia reside in the heart, spleen, lungs and various other organs. But no one knows how they’ll fit into the plot. Early hints suggest the story is going to be riveting.
Already, tantalizing clues are rolling in about what these cells are doing. Glia appear to help regulate the heart’s beating, for instance. Glia in the spleen reside right between nerve cells and immune cells — a perfect spot to influence the connection between health and stress. Exactly what glia are up to in the lungs is unknown, but whatever it is seems important, early experiments suggest — mice with no lung glia die.
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“The fact that now there are these new glial cell populations being discovered in unique organs will hopefully trigger a lot of lightbulbs,” says Sarah Ackerman, a neurobiologist at Washington University in St. Louis. Like most researchers who study glia, Ackerman focuses on glia inside the brain.
She sees big potential in the handful of new studies that look at far-flung glia. “There’s going to be a revelation that across all of these organs, there are specialized glia that are supporting the function of the neurons there, but also overall organ health.”