A Connectome… just Neurons?

While it would be nearly impossible to argue that neurons don’t play an enormously large role in shaping our behavior, personality, thoughts and feelings, a large portion (nearly 90%) of the brain’s mass is often forgotten when discussing our brain’s neuronal connections. Glial cells, specifically astrocytes, which were once thought to be essentially inactive glue holding the neurons together, are actually key in establishing synaptic connections between neurons. They absorb excess neurotransmitter, but they also communicate with one another using chemical signals that are much more difficult to detect in relation to those of neurons. These signals determine how and if a synapse will be formed; they determine which synapses thrive, and which will die off (Barres et. al., 2005). The strength of connections between neurons is key in determining whether or not an action potential is going to be propagated and thus affect our behavior. The stronger the connection, the more vivid the memory, the more defined the personality trait, the more powerful the emotion… you get the idea. So, if our identity, our connectome, lies in our synapses and those synapses are governed by astrocytes, it would seem strange to ignore the huge impact these cells have on our neurons. Neuroscience is an extremely neuron-centric field of study, and for good reason; we still haven’t been able to map pathways for even some of our most basic thoughts. However, I can’t help wondering whether simply mapping a pathway is going to give us a thorough enough understanding of the brain to fix some of the major issues that occur in people and other animals. I should think that studying the astrocytes and the strength they lend to our connections could provide crucial insight into some of the most debilitating and destructive mental diseases.Image

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