The Underdog of the Brain: Glial Cells

Sept. 2, 2015

Photo: Kendra Liu

Glial cells may be the key to solving many unanswered questions about the brain.

The field of neuroscience is booming. In trying to understand how the brain works, neuroscientists have focused for decades on the main actors: neurons, which are known for making our muscles move and forming our thoughts.

We know an incredible amount about neurons. But how many of us have ever heard of their partners, the glial cells?

The word "glia" comes from the Greek word for glue, but that barely begins to describe their versatility. Glial cells, composing about 50 percent of human brains, work behind the scenes to make it all happen. Rarely do they receive the limelight, but functions of these cells are being discovered every day.

Multiple classes of glial cells exist, including astrocytes, the glial cells of interest to myself and my lab directors at the University of Arizona, researchers Lynne A. Oland and Regents' Professor Leslie Tolbert, both of the UA Department of Neuroscience. There, researchers conduct behavioral testing of genetically modified fruit fly larvae.

During the summer, I was in the Neuroscience and Cognitive Science Summer Research Program, which is under the Undergraduate Biology Research Program, or UBRP. My experience was been one of the best experiences of my college career. During the summer, and since then, I have been immersed in the neuroscience field with exposure to all of the newest, current techniques for visualization, modification and analysis. Not only did I learn about these things, but I received firsthand experience through workshops and in the lab co-managed by Oland and Tolbert.

Like most people, I had never heard of glial cells before joining the research lab. Now I work with a team investigating in depth the critical conversations between glial cells and neurons. A comprehensive understanding of the roles of glial cells will enrich our overall understanding of the brain and may open doors to new approaches to treatment of devastating disorders.

Astrocytes enclose synapses, which are the sites of communication between neurons. As partners at the synapse, glial cells guide the development of the connections and then modulate the strength of those connections throughout life.

After we've disrupted neuronal activity in these larvae, we ask: What do the glial cells in their brains look like? To answer that question, I use laser confocal microscopy, a technique that provides detailed, three-dimensional images of cells.

I joined the lab during my senior year at Tucson High Magnet High School through the Research Methods program, taught by Margaret Wilch. I am grateful that as a high school student I was able to gain experience in current groundbreaking science that took me far beyond the classroom. I can't imagine how different college would have been had I not been able to get involved in research early.

Contact Cathy Tran, an Honors College student in the UA Undergraduate Biology Research Program who is majoring in neuroscience and cognitive science, at