Our collective main activity today was to frequent a whole bunch of mini-symposia. We also checked out the vendor stalls and got a lot of cool loot, but I think Chelsea is posting on that right now, so I’ll leave off. We all ended up going to different talks – the ones I was most interested in were about the expanding understanding of microglia and social pain. One at a time, then! I’ll talk about Social Pain later.
Microglia, for the uninitiated (like me, I guess, because I learned most of this today) are the brain’s immune response. When something hostile gets by the blood-brain barrier, they attack and slay it. They’re also involved in a bunch of other important secondary proceedings in the brain. They scavenge excess cell matter, recruit other microglia to the site of damage, strip the myelin off of damaged neurons, and generally act useful. If one wanted to make a facile metaphor, one could compare them to policemen in their role – they patrol for things going wrong and then clean up the mess. For example, there was a video during one of the talks that showed microglia congregating to the point of a bleed and aiding in its repair by glomming themselves around it. Apparently, their state in the brain is one of fluid near-constant motion. They can expand themselves by 2 micrometers per second, and do so often. Apparently microglia are greatly involved in early developmental pruning of exuberant (extra) neurons, a time period that is crucial for the establishment of the cognitive skills we humans have in later life.
Microglia also seem to congregate in the more complex parts of the brain, responsible for our higher thinking. It’s admittedly just an observation, but they’re in the cerebellum, the cortex, and the hippocampus in great numbers. There may be some sort of connection to the famous finding that Albert Einstein had greater amounts of glial cells in his brain. I could not find on the internet whether anyone specified what type of glial cell it was (there are several other sorts: astrocytes, ogliodendricytes, Schwann cells, etc), so I can’t make a statement directly linking microglia with intelligence. I would, however, opine that the support systems in our brains play a critical role in allowing the superior complex function that we, as humans, benefit from so much. It makes sense that those areas which are required to be more plastic and adapt to constantly changing conditions of memory would have to be maintained at a high level of function by glial cells, with special emphasis placed on microglia for their role in pruning. If I had time to talk about astrocytes, I would do that as well – they’re apparently pretty complicated too.
Most of this came from only one talk about microglia. Another concerned itself with the specific activation of microglia, a third was all about pruning, and the last, on hippocampal pruning directly after neurogenesis, was hard to fully grasp because it was given with a heavy Spanish accent and had a lot of jargon. That was unfortunate, because what I did grasp sounded awfully cool.