ERA CHAIR NCBIO

Explore
the unknown
half of the brain

ERA CHAIR NCBIO

Building a center for European excellence for (non-neuronal) glial biology

When we think about the brain, we tend to think of neurons as its basic, fundamental units. These units form the complicated neuronal networks that allow us to think, feel and communicate. Important as they may be, these only account for 10-50% of the cells that make up our brain, depending on who is counting. It is highly likely that the commonly used phrase “we only use 10% of our brain” has its origin in this fact.

The cerebellum is important for timing of complex body movements. It is not only composed of neurons but also glial cells (magenta and yellow). Glial cells are essential to control neurotransmission during development, function and disease.

So, what is the other half of the brain?
The rest is made up of glia.

Glia is a broad term for every other cell that is not a neuron and derives from the Greek meaning of “glue”. Since their discovery, glia have not generated the same curiosity and research efforts as neurons, largely because they were (incorrectly) considered as passive bystanders, whose only function is to keep neurons together and make sure they function properly. In the last 20 years, however, this view has been challenged and nowadays there is a growing appreciation for the role of glia in the nervous system. First, it is now recognized that glia comprises a variety of cellular subtypes—including microglia, oligodendrocytes and astrocytes—which all have their own specific function in the brain. Second, glia is essentially altered in every brain disease and in response to injury (e.g. brain tumors, neurodegenerative diseases and traumatic brain injury).

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OBJECTIVES

Our mission is to look into these “underdog” cells of our brain.

We have a special interest in astrocytes, the most numerous types of glia in the brain, due to their intimate relationship with neurons. Astrocytes are vital to all aspects of neuronal function. Not only do astrocytes keep neurons alive by providing them with fuel, they also act as scaffolds on which complicated neuronal networks are built. Not only this but astrocytes can also ‘listen in’ and ‘modify’ the neuronal chatter. If the brain is a computer, then astrocytes are the power unit and CPU all in one!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is now recognized that astrocyte dysfunction plays a central role in many serious (and currently incurable) diseases. For example, in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, astrocytes become reactive and secrete a toxic substance that kills neurons; gliomas are most commonly derived from cancerous astrocytes; and in spinal cord injury, astrocytes form a scar that prevents axon regeneration and functional recovery of neurons. Most current drug strategies focus on keeping neurons alive and have failed in clinical trials, because we simply do not know how to keep these cells alive. On the other hand, astrocytes do know how to keep neurons alive, so understanding how the mechanisms they use to achieve this and how they go wrong in disease will provide crucial insights which can be harnessed in next generation medicines.

Given the exciting promise of glia biology to help reveal critical aspects of brain function, it is a rapidly expanding area. We believe that the ERA Chair represents an outstanding opportunity to establish i3S at the forefront of this field, and that together with our national and international colleagues we can establish Porto as an internationally-recognized Center-of-Excellence for non-neuronal cell biology.

Pillars of NCBio

1.

Improve research into glia biology through support and promotion of innovation

2.

Actively contribute to upgrading postgraduate education in neuroscience to take a truly integrated view of brain function

3.

Improve translational research by promoting novel basic research and facilitating its dissemination to the medical community, patient organizations, pharmaceutical industry and policy-makers (via the NCBio Hub)