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26. 5 2012 (19:55)
How the brain's emergency workers respond to distress calls from dying neurons
The film clip shows shows microglial cells (labelled green) migrating towards injured neurons in the embryonic zebrafish brain. Microglia are immune cells that act as the brain's emergency workers - they constantly patrol the organ, extending and retracting their finger-like protruberances to sniff out any damage, and then migrating to an injury site to mop up dead cells and other cellular debris. New research shows that they migrate to an injury site in response to a distress call sent out by dying neurons and transmitted throughout the brain. I've written a news story about the work for Science.
Microglia are also deployed to engulf microbes that invade the brain. But they're not just active during emergencies: they also play an active role in the healthy brain, and are critical for proper development of the organ. During embryonic development, the brain generates huge numbers of neurons which then go on to form synapses, or connections, with one another. Many of these synapses aren't actually needed, and exuberant ones are later 'pruned' back.
Last year, researchers in Germany showed microglia prune unwanted synapses in the developing mouse hippocampus, engulfing them as if they were microbes. Earlier this week, American researchers reported that they also prune the synapses formed by cells that project from the back of the eye into the brain, so it seems likely that they perform this process throughout the brain.
We know that the adult brain is continuously making and breaking synapses, too. These processes are one form of what is often referred to as neuroplasticity, and are now widely believed that these processes play an important role in learning and memory. It's tempting to speculate that microglia eliminate unwanted synapses in the adult brain, but more research will be needed to confirm that this is the case.