June 17, 2024

Myelin keeps the brain healthy

(Photo: Andrea Rivera)

This recording provides insight into the white matter in the brain. It gets its white appearance from turquoise myelin, the covering material that surrounds the conduction pathways between brain cells.

Myelin is a white protective layer made up of proteins and lipids that surround our nerve cell extensions, axons. This layer insulates the nerve pathways and thus helps ensure that the electrical impulses that travel from one nerve cell to another are not weakened. This makes the nerve conduction in our bodies effective even over long distances.

But myelin is also present in our brain – the nerve sheath shows our absorption. In our thinking organ, matter forms an insulating layer around the lines that connect our brain cells and our regions to one another. This gives the layer in which these nerve connections collect a white color – so it is also known as the white brain substance. “Everyone knows gray matter, but few are aware of white matter in the brain,” says Arthur Pat of the University of Portsmouth.

This white matter in the brain and with it the myelin sheath in the nerve tracts is critical for the functioning of our brain. If myelin is damaged or broken down, as in multiple sclerosis or dementia, important signals can be misdirected or missed. Myelin consists of special cells, oligodendrocytes, which are constantly developing from progenitor cells. However, in old age, this happens very slowly, so that less myelin is produced and the lack of white brain matter leads to mental deterioration.

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Now researchers led by Pat and Andrea Rivera at the University of Portsmouth are investigating why oligodendrocyte formation is slowed in the aging brain. To do this, they compared the genome of a young mouse brain to the genome of a senile mouse. By doing this, they came across a gene that appears to play a major role in the replication of myelin-producing cells.

In the next step, the scientists now want to clarify whether this gene also controls the development of oligodendrocytes in humans. If confirmed, the gene could provide a starting point for stimulating myelin production in the aging brain and thus “regenerating” the brain. This may also help delay or relieve neurodegenerative diseases.