Because we all needed something new to worry about in our pantries, the University of Rochester neuroscience boffins decided to see what happens when you put human glial cells into prenatal mice. The answer? Mice that can perform calculus.
Well, ok. Not really.
But they did discover that the much more complex and robust human glial cells would operate exactly the same in mice as they do in humans. By grafting “glial progenitor” cells -basically brain-specific stem cells – into mice before they were born, the boffins were able to create mice that used the human glial cells instead of their own. The result seems to have been a major boost to the cognitive abilities of the affected mice:
They found that two important indicators of brain function drastically improved in the mice with human glia. First, when measuring a phenomenon called calcium wave – the speed and distance at which a signal spreads within and among adjoining astrocytes in the brain – the researchers noted that the speed of wave transmission in the transplanted mice was faster than normally observed in mice, and more similar to that of human brain tissue.
Second, the researchers also looked at long-term potentiation (LTP), a process that measures how long the neurons in the brain are affected by a brief electrical stimulation. LTP is considered one of the central molecular mechanism underlying learning and memory. In this test as well, the researchers found that the transplanted mice developed more rapid and sustained LTP, suggesting their improved learning capability.
So the mice with the human glial cells (chimeras, as they’re referred to in the study) are able to send signals across the brain faster and remember learned responses better. All of which adds up to a much smarter mouse.
Glial cells are a suite of different types of brain cells, sometimes referred to as “white matter,” that perform regulation and maintenance functions in the brain. U of R researchers have been studying glial cells, trying to understand the much more complex role they play in the brain than previously thought. Some research may lead to cures for Alzheimer’s disease or MS.
And some research may lead to empty mouse traps and a lot less pancake batter mix in your house than you thought you’d bought. Science is full of such trade-offs.