Can the underlying cause of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s be traced back to our own immune system?
Diseases like Alzheimer’s are attributed to a buildup of proteins in the brain that form plaques and tangles, leading to the loss of brain connections. But scientist Beth Stevens theorizes that the underlying cause of degenerative neural conditions takes place well before the buildup of proteins. Stevens, along with researchers from MIT and Harvard, believe that aberrant synaptic elimination is to blame.
Our brains are constantly undergoing a process in which weak or damaged synapses are cleared out or “pruned” to keep everything running smoothly. The cells responsible for pruning faulty synapses are called microglia, and until recently they’ve been largely overlooked by the scientific community.
Microglia were previously thought to be nothing more than a sort of neurological janitorial service. When brain cells are damaged, microglia gobble up the injured bits while another type of glia called astrocytes creates scar tissue. The process is known as gliosis.
Stevens’ mentor, Stanford biologist Ben Barres, has been studying microglia for decades. “It was just really fascinating,” he says. “The great mystery was: what is the point of
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