When Brain Cells Go Awry

May 12, 2020

Scientists at Virginia Tech are exploring how conditions like epilepsy and autism may be affected when brain cells, normally programmed to heal brain injuries, do the opposite.

 

The same brain cells designed to stop brain damage fail to support healthy neurons when a cancer grows. New research, led by Stefanie Robel and Harald Sontheimer at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, reveals how gliomas alter astrocytes, a cell type that helps protect neurons and is crucial to preventing seizures.

When a person’s brain is injured, in something like a fall or blunt trauma to the head, star shaped cells called astrocytes flood the injured area to protect it from  further damage. But when the invader is a glioma, the most common type of brain tumor, those fixer cells lose their vital ability to repair damage to the brain.

“And so, astrocytes form the scar and seal off the injured area from the uninjured ones.”   Virginia Tech’s Stefanie Robel co-authored a study on the difference in how the astrocytes behave.

When a person’s brain is injured, in something like a fall or blunt trauma to the head, star shaped cells called astrocytes flood the injured area to protect it from  further damage. But when the invader is a glioma, the most common type of brain tumor, those fixer cells lose their vital ability to repair damage to the brain.

 

“And so, astrocytes form the scar and seal off the injured area from the uninjured ones.”   Virginia Tech’s Stefanie Robel co-authored a study on the difference in how the astrocytes behave.

 

She says, “Surrounding a brain tumor, we found that the astrocytes do the exact same thing. But in this process of adapting to this special type of brain injury, namely, the growth of a tumor, they lose the ability to perform their normal functions.”

 

And that dysfunction by the astrocytes opens the door for other brain diseases to flourish, such as epilepsy, and perhaps autism.

 

“This is actually a topic, many researchers are interested in right now. And so that is part of our work as scientists, to figure out what is similar in different disease contexts, and what is different.”

 

 

Seizures affect most glioma patients. The team's research shows that the precense of malignant cells in the inhibits the astrocytes' ability to protect those cells, as it does in otherb rain  injury scenarios. creatiing an 'excitation/inhibition' imbalance causing recurrent seizures.

 

This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Epilepsy Foundation, and the American Brain Tumor Association.