Tag Archives: G. Milton Shy

Do glia think? Take II

Do glia think Dr. Gonatas?  This was part of an exchange between G. Milton Shy, head of neurology at Penn, and Nick Gonatas a brilliant neuropathologist who worked with Shy as the two of them described new disease after new disease in the 60s ( myotubular (centronuclear) myopathy, nemaline myopathy, mitochondrial myopathy and oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy).

Gonatas was claiming that a small glial tumor caused a marked behavioral disturbance, and Shy was demurring.  Just after I graduated, the Texas Tower shooting brought the question back up in force — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Texas_tower_shooting.

Well that was 55 years ago, and we’ve learned a lot more about glia since.  

If glia don’t actually think, they may actually help neurons think better.  Since the brain is consuming 20% of your cardiac output as you sit there, it had better use the energy in the form of glucose  brought to it efficiently, and so it does, oxidizing it using oxygen (aerobic metabolism).  Glia on the other hand for reasons as yet unknown oxidize glucose anaerobically producing lactic acid (aerobic glycolysis). They transport the lactic acid to neurons and blocking transport impairs memory consolidation in experimental animals.  In fact aerobic glycolysis occurs in conditions of high synaptic plasticity and remodeling.  

The brain is 60% fat, some of which is cholesterol, which has to be made in the brain, as it doesn’t cross the blood brain barrier. Although neurons can synthesize cholesterol from scratch, most synthesis of cholesterol in the brain occurs in astrocytes.  It is than carried to neurons by apolipoprotein E.  As you are doubtless aware, apolipoprotein E (APOE) comes in three flavors 2, 3 and 4, and having two copies of APOE4 increases your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. 

But APOE does much more than schlep cholesterol to neurons according to a recent paper [ Neuron vol. 109 pp. 907 – 909, 957 – 970 ’21 ] Inside the particles are microRNAs.  You’ll recall that microRNAs decrease  the expression of proteins they target by binding to the messenger RNA (mRNA) for the targeted protein triggering its destruction. 

The microRNAs inside APOE suppress enzymes involved in de novo neuronal cholesterol biosynthesis (why work making cholesterol when the astrocyte is giving to you for free?).

This is unprecedented.  Passing metabolites (lactic acid, cholesterol) to neurons is one thing, but changing neuronal protein expression is quite another. 

Passing microRNAs in exosomes has been well worked out between cells (particularly cancer cells) outside the brain, but that’s for another time. 

Do glia think?

Do glia think Dr. Gonatas?  This was part of an exchange between G. Milton Shy, head of neurology at Penn, and Nick Gonatas a brilliant neuropathologist who worked with Shy as the two of them described new disease after new disease in the 60s ( myotubular (centronuclear) myopathy, nemaline myopathy, mitochondrial myopathy and oculopharyngeal muscular dystrophy).

Gonatas was claiming that a small glial tumor caused a marked behavioral disturbance, and Shy was demurring.  Just after I graduated, the Texas Tower shooting brought the question back up in force — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Texas_tower_shooting.

A recent paper [ Neuron vol. 105 pp. 954 – 956, 1036 – 1047 ’20] gives good evidence that glia are more than the janitors and the maintenance crew of the brain.

Glia cover most synapses (so neurotransmitter there doesn’t leak out, I thought) giving rise to the term tripartite synapse (presynaptic terminal + postsynaptic membrane + glial covering).

Here’s what they studied.  The cerebral cortex projects some of its axons (which use glutamic acid as a neurotransmitter) to a much studied nucleus in animals (the nucleus accumbens).  This is synapse #1. The same nucleus gets a projection of axons from the brainstem ventral tegmental area (VTA) which uses dopamine as a neurotransmitter.  However, the astrocytes (a type of glia) covering synapse #1 have the D1 dopamine receptor (there are 5 different dopamine receptors) on them.  It isn’t clear if the dopamine neurons actually synapse (synapse #2) on the astrocytes, or whether the dopamine  just leaks out of the synaptic cleft to the covering glia.

Optogenetic stimulation of the VTA dopamine neurons results in an elevation of calcium in the astrocytes (a sign of stimulation). Chemogenetic activation of these astrocytes depresses the presynaptic  terminals of the neurons projecting the nucleus accumbens  from the cerebral cortex .  How does this work?  Stimulated astrocytes release ATP or its produce adenosine.  This binds to the A1 purinergic receptor on the presynaptic terminal of the cortical projection.

So what?

The following sure sounds like the astrocyte here is critical to brain function.  Activation of the astrocyte D1 receptor contributes to the locomotor hyperactivity seen after an injection of amphetamine.

Dopamine is intimately involved in reward, psychosis, learning and other processes (antipsychotics and drugs for hyperactivity manipulate it).  That the humble astrocyte is involved in dopamine action takes it out of the maintenance crew and puts it in to management.

A final note about Dr. Shy.  He was a brilliant and compelling teacher, and instead of the usual 1% of a medical school class going into neurology, some 5% of ours did.  In 1967 he ascended to the chair of the pinnacle of American Neurology at the time, Columbia University.  Sadly, he died the month he assumed the chair.  Scuttlebut has it that he misdiagnosed his own heart attack as ‘indigestion’ and was found dead in his chair.