Supporting cells take lead role as brains age

12th Jan 2017

A surprising finding in a study done by researchers at UCL and the Francis Crick Institute showed that the main changes in our brains as we get older are in the brain cells with a supporting role (glial cells). The greatest changes in the glial cells were in brain regions most often damaged by neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

They looked at how different types of brain cells change over time in healthy individuals. Knowing more about healthy ageing can give insight into the damage caused by diseases like Alzheimer's. Previous research has focused on neurons, as they are the cells involved in brain processing and memories. Due to the finding dramatic changes in glial cells, they have now aimed their research toward the interactions between glial cells and neuronal cells for future dementia research. 

The study consisted of 480 healthy volunteers between 16-106 years old. They looked at patterns of gene expression in neuron and glial cells in 10 different brain regions. The researchers used computational analyses to examine the cell populations present in images scanned from stained brain sections. 

By integrating traditional gene expression techniques with powerful computational and imaging methods it has given a new insight into the way the brain changes as it ages and where future research needs to head to learn more about neurodegenerative diseases.

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