Einstein’s brain

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(Host) Science has been delving for years into the details of how our bafflingly complex brains work. Commentator Ruth Page offers a simple introduction to the challenges researchers face, and a recent discovery they’ve made.

(Page) No longer do I blame my brain for being forgetful. As sci-ence learns more about the incredible intricacy of our nervous systems, I’m impressed that I can remember anything at all. If you think highway traffic is a puzzle, take a look inside the brain sometime: billions of cells, electricity and chemicals rushing about with messages going in all directions without Stop and Go signs – it’s a stunner.

Albert Einstein’s brain was preserved for 40 years by a guy who kept it in a plastic container, until in old age he decided the great scientist’s granddaughter should take charge. She let scientists take over, and they’ve been having a field day.

We all knew we had oodles of neurons that talk to each other by meeting at synapses and gabbling by electricity. But how about glia? We have lots more glia than we do neurons, but no one has paid much attention, assuming they were simply supporting the vital neurons.

Then one thin slice of genius Einstein’s brain proved he had hundreds more glia cells than the rest of us do. Researchers also found that as they move along the developing path of evolution, nervous system glial cells grow in number from the simplest forms of life to the more complex, such as mammals, including us.

So the glia must be doing some pretty important things, and teams of neurology scientists have been experimenting since 1990, trying to winkle out what the dickens that is.

Well! It turns out those glia are madly busy within the turmoil of the brain. They’re Great Communicators, sending messages to each other and to neurons. They just don’t use the electricity that was thought to be essential. They use chemical messengers, and my guess is they haven’t found the right mix for remembering things like my car keys and that report I was reading just yesterday; probably they’re doing what they consider more important – or maybe I just have too few of them.

When you read about the mix of cells, the connections from glia to dendrites to astrocytes to axons and (if you can believe it) oligodendrocytes, you feel a certain sympathy with your poor brain. It begins to seem miraculous that it can tell you every-thing from where to put your hand to pick up a scrap of paper, to what statistics you must understand to figure out things like population growth and its connection to the environment.

Will these years of inspired and patient brain research have any practical use? They are very likely to: glia cells help figure out where synapses should form; maybe that will help science cure spinal cord injuries. Researchers also hope glia may be the key to treating nerve diseases like multiple sclerosis.

This is Ruth Page reporting rather light-heartedly some marvellously intricate and impressive work by numerous teams of scientists in ferreting out the traffic controllers in our brains.

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