Implanted devices send targeted electrical stimulation to the nervous system to interfere with abnormal brain activity, and it is commonly assumed that neurons are the only important brain cells that need to be stimulated by these devices. However, research published in Nature Biomedical Engineering reveals that it may also be important to target the supportive glial cells surrounding the neurons.

"Glial cells are the most abundant in the central nervous system and critical to the function of the neuronal network," said Takashi Kozai, assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of Pittsburgh's Swanson School of Engineering. "The most obvious function of glial cells has been related to their role in forming scar tissue to prevent the spread of injury and neuronal degeneration, but so much about their role in the brain is unknown."

The current study suggests that these glial cells are more functional than previously thought. "From providing growth factor support and ensuring proper oxygen and nutrient delivery to the brain to trimming of obsolete synapses and recycling waste products, recent findings show that glial cells do much more to ensure brain activity is optimized," Kozai said.

The slow, dim signals of glial cells are much more difficult to detect than the vibrant electrical activity of neurons. New advancements in technology allows researchers like Kozai to detect the subtleties of glial cell activity, and these observations are shedding new light on current issues plaguing implant devices and the treatment of neurological disease.

Kozai explains, "Dysfunction in glial cells has been implicated as a cause and/or major contributor to an increasing number of neurological and developmental diseases. Therefore, it stands to reason that targeting these glial cells (in lieu of or in combination with neurons) may dramatically improve current treatments."

"By combining in vivo multiphoton microscopy and in vivo electrophysiology, our lab is better able to visualize how cells move and change over time in the living brain and explain how changes in these glial cells alter the visually evoked neural network activity," siad Kozai. "Using this approach to better understand these cells can help guide implant design and success."

Kozai's lab is currently working on a project to understand the role of another type of glial cell on brain injury and neuronal activity. "Oligodendrocyte Progenitor Cells," or OPCs, are progenitor cells — similar to stem cells — that have the capacity to differentiate during tissue repair.

"As progenitor cells, they have the capacity to differentiate into a variety of cells, including neurons. The technology is advancing to the point in which we can have a much better understanding of how the brain works comprehensively, rather than just focusing on neurons because their electrical signals make them appear brighter when imaging the brain," Kozai explained.

Kozai believes that it is a pivotal time to investigate these cells and recognizes Dr. Ben Barres, an acclaimed neuroscientist at Stanford University, who made crucial discoveries in glial cell research. Kozai said, "Professor Ben Barres really uncovered the importance of these glial cells on brain injuries and diseases. We have to keep pushing to see how we can improve current treatment by fixing these under-appreciated brain cells."