Canadian Research Breaks New Ground on Understand How the Brain Works

Brain cells, known as astrocytes, which play fundamental roles in nearly all aspects of brain function, could be adjusted by neurons in response to injury and disease.

This discovery, which shows that the brain has a far greater ability to adapt and respond to changes than previously believed, could have significant implications on epilepsy, movement disorders, and psychiatric and neurodegenerative disease.

A research team, led by the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre, broke this new ground in our understanding of the complex functioning of the brain. The research, which is published in the current issue of the journal Science, discovered that there is a little dial-like mechanism on astrocytes that enables neurons to adjust astrocytes and ensure they provide the right kind of support.

“It was believed that astrocytes acquired their properties during the development of the brain and then they were hardwired in their roles,” says senior study’s author Dr. Keith Murai, director of the Centre for Research in Neuroscience at the RI-MUHC, associate professor of the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University. “We have now discovered that astrocytes are actually incredibly flexible and potentially modifiable, which enables them to improve brain function or restore lost potential caused by disease.’’

“This ‘dial’ is likely used to tune the astrocyte’s response in the normal brain but also in different diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or injuries such as stroke or trauma, for example,’’ explains Dr. Todd Farmer, the study’s first author and a post-doctoral fellow in Dr. Murai’s laboratory at the Montreal General Hospital of the MUHC. “Our findings help us to better understand the complexity of the brain and also grasp mechanisms that can be used to reduce brain injury and disease.’’

Researchers conducted most of their experiments on mouse models and studied a specific pathway called the Sonic Hedgehog signaling pathway, which is well known in brain development and cancer.

“This is an extraordinary mechanism in the healthy, mature brain that creates diversity of brain cells,’’ says Dr. Murai. “Now, our goal is to see how this mechanism is affected in different brain diseases and determine if it can be harnessed to protect neurons and ultimately preserve brain function.’’

“Dr. Murai and his team have made a remarkable discovery that will advance our understanding of fundamental mechanisms that play a role in brain disease,” says Inez Jabalpurwala, president and CEO of Brain Canada Foundation.

“This exciting discovery by Dr. Murai and his team has the potential to impact the understanding of and ultimately future treatments for a number of neurodegenerative diseases,” said Alexandra Stewart, executive director of the Weston Brain Institute.

This work was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Brain Canada Foundation and the Weston Brain Institute.