Journey through the brain: Part 1

An up-close look at the cells and structures that form this complex organ

The human brain is a weird and wonderful organ, one of the most complex structures on the planet, and at The Neuro, our team of researchers are working hard to uncover its mysteries. Their work is critically important to people suffering from neurological conditions.

As part of a new series, we take you on a journey through the brain using images from the many labs that make up The Neuro. In Part 1, we will look at cells that play a role in brain cancer, in honour of our annual fundraiser, A Brilliant Night. Follow hashtag #neuromicro on Facebook and Instagram to join the conversation.

A cell of glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer.
Image by Armin Bayati, Peter McPherson Lab.

The first image is a cell of glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer. Glioblastoma is aggressive; the average life expectancy after diagnosis is one to two years.

Also known as glioblastoma multiforme, the cancer develops from cells called astrocytes that support nerve cells. Treatments may slow progression of the cancer and reduce the symptoms, but right now there is no cure.

Astrocyte and an oligodendrocyte
Image by Lab of Tim Kennedy .

In the last image, we showed you what a cell of glioblastoma looks like. But to understand brain cancer we cannot just study brain cancer cells but the healthy cells that can become cancerous.

Astrocytes regulate the formation, maturation, maintenance, and stability of synapses. Glioblastoma cells can actually activate astrocytes to promote cancer invasion in the healthy tissue. By studying astrocytes we may be able to find mechanisms to stop or slow cancer spread.

This photomicrograph from the lab of Tim Kennedy shows an astrocyte and an oligodendrocyte. Oligodendrocytes are specialized cells that myelinate axons. Learning more about them is important for researching diseases such as multiple sclerosis because it is caused by demyelination.

Image by The Early Drug Discovery Unit.

This image from The Neuro’s Early Drug Discovery Unit is not a galaxy far, far away—they are a group of astrocytes, and understanding their function will help us combat neurological disease. Astrocytes are involved in the production of new neurons and synapses, and loss of them as we age could be responsible for Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease and dementia.

The cells go into overdrive when we are young children, helping us produce new brain circuits. As we reach adulthood, they shift more to helping eliminate synapses, which stabilizes neuronal inputs. This may explain why it is easier for us to learn certain things like language at a young age.

In Part 2 of our journey, we take a close look at the neuron: the fundamental cell of the human brain.

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The Neuro is a McGill research and teaching institute; delivering high quality patient care, as part of the Neuroscience Mission of the McGill University Health Centre. We are proud to be a Killam Institution, supported by the Killam Trusts.




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