Because My Life Sucks, I’m Thinking About Glia

14 Nov

ImageAbove: Astrocyte from Wikimedia commons.

Did you ever have a week that was like a catastrophe sandwich with all the trappings? A week that makes you say, “But I don’t LIKE counting my blessings,” because if you DID happen to say at least your car works, someone would appear out of thin air to smash into it? Otherwise I would say I am extraordinarily lucky to be married to my hus–  no, I think I’ll just keep the evil eye off him right now.

As I have had disastrous weeks before, I have my own very special technique for tuning out of trouble by tuning into something.  . . interesting. Something that has nothing to do with anything but the bright-shining world out there beyond me. And because I am interested in brains, this morning I am going to learn and share a little bit about glia.

When son number 1 was home recently, we were talking about glia (he’s taking a psychology class). I insisted that there were numerous forms of glia in the brain and that some kinds were instrumental in preventing attacks on the blood-brain barrier and that they far outnumbered the neurons and axons that are the more famous residents of the brain. He said that glia made up the myelin sheaths of the white matter of the brain. The myelin is the fatty (hence white) insulating sheath that coats nerves and makes for smooth transmission of—whatever the brain and body feel like transmitting. So, of course, we immediately went to our electronica and one, two, three, looked it up as fast as we could. To my surprise, it was a draw. Glia do a lot of things (yea, team me!) . And one of them is provide myelin to neurons (yea, team M.!) . Who knew?

Anyway, if you care to use your brain to think about your brain—does it actually know you’re thinking about it? Creepy! It’s like the Land o’ Lakes maiden holding the box of Land o’ Lakes with the same maiden, only tinier and she’s holding . . . ) here are just a few little delightful things to know about glia.

  1. The word glia means glue. Back in the days of whalebone corsets and spittoons, and even more recently, folks used to think that they were just things that stuck around and filled up space and kind of glued everything into place. But they were soooo wrong.
  2. They are right about the idea that glia are the connective tissue of the brain, but  . . .
  3. Even though neurons and axons, the telegraph wires of the brain (to give you an extremely relevant metaphor) are the only ones who can really transmit information, glia have a number of roles to play in brain function.
  4. If they could vote, glia would win every election, because there are 10 to 50 times more glial cells than neurons. Or, somebody else said, they make up 90 percent of the brain’s cells. Or something. Short version:  there are lots of glia. Although neurons and axons would probably be better to rig the election in their favor, honestly.



So anyway, as far as I understand, and since I got like an F Minus in science, don’t sue me if I’m wrong, here are just some of the major types of glia:

  1. astrocytes. Shaped like stars, they hold neurons in place, bring food to neurons, eat dead neurons,  protect the brain from intruders, etc.
  2. microglia: Eat dead neurons
  3. oligodendroglia: Provide myelin to neurons in the central nervous system (again, yea, Team M.)
  4. Satellite cells: give physical support to neurons in the peripheral  nervous system.
  5. Schwann cells: Provide myelin for neurons in another part of the nervous system, the peripheral (or outer) nervous system. (score another for Team M.)

When glia go bad, they can attack parts of the nervous system they shouldn’t. But normally, they are the hardworking, underappreciated assistants to the neurons that let us do all the brilliant things we do, like reading 50 Shades of Gray on the train, deciding that jeggings are an appropriate fashion statement at a job interview, or taking Mom out to Hooters for the Mother’s Day Hot Wings special. So, give it up for glia!

Incidentally, there’s a “Glia Society” for brainiacs who like to play games. ( Go to town, friends!

Writing Prompt: Did you seriously think Mom wanted to go to Hooters for Mother’s Day? List pros and cons.

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