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New Research on Myelinating Glia Provides Insights for Regenerative Medicine

September 20, 2016

According to a new study in Scientific Reports, the cells that produce myelin in the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system—oligodendrocytes (OL) and Schwann cells (SC), respectively—accomplish this function in a strikingly different manner, responding to the environmental demands of their developmental niches.

Myelinating glia—OL in the brain and spinal cord and SC in the peripheral nerves—are essential to the normal functioning of the nervous system: They protect neurons, supply them with metabolites, and greatly increase the speed at which nerve impulses travel. The most recent work of the Melendez-Vasquez Lab at Hunter College, City University of New York, examines the role of mechanotransduction—the ability of cells to respond to the mechanical properties of their environment—in glial cell differentiation. Their findings showed that OL are sensitive to changes in the mechanical properties of the extracellular matrix, and that increases in stiffness restrict their maturation and capacity to produce myelin proteins. By contrast, SC developed normally in both soft and stiffer matrices.

Oligodendrocytes in culture showing changes in morphology and protein localization as they mature.

Oligodendrocytes in culture showing changes in morphology and protein localization as they mature.

These results suggest that the ability of cells to repair damaged myelin may be compromised in diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, characterized by the hardening of nervous system tissue. Principle investigator Dr. Carmen Melendez-Vasquez said, “Exploring how changes in the physical properties of nervous tissue resulting from disease or injury affect glial cell differentiation can provide important insights for regenerative medicine, in particular for strategies like the design of synthetic materials that can fill wounds and promote healing, or transplantation of stem cells into injury sites.”

Dr. Laura Feltri, Professor of Biochemistry and Neurology at SUNY-Buffalo, said, “The findings fit nicely with the emerging concept that the cells that make myelin respond to mechanical stimuli.  Many brain diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or traumatic brain injury modify the stiffness of the nervous system. The results of Dr. Melendez-Vasquez not only help us to understand how these diseases may alter myelination, but is also begins to suggest ways to manipulate the physical properties of the nervous system to cure them.”

Increased understanding of how myelinating glia develop and function will lay essential groundwork for future therapies to treat debilitating disorders such as multiple sclerosis or to promote nerve repair after traumatic injury or stroke.

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