Posts Tagged ‘University of Bordeaux’

Glial Cells and Working Memory

July 25, 2012

When I was a graduate student, glial cells presented a problem. No one seemed to know their function, yet there were so many of them. Gradually we are gaining insight into their important functions (See the Healthymemory Blog Posts, “Our Neurons Make Up only 15 Percent of our Brain Cells,” “Glial Cells and Alzheimer’s Disease,” and “Alzheimer’s and Amyloid Plaques.”) A recent study reported in Scientific American Mind1 indicates that certain types of glial cells might play a role in conscious thought. Astrocytes, a type of glia, appear to play an important role in short term or working memory.

It is well known that marijuana plays a role is disrupting short term memory. Although this might be fine for recreational uses of the drug, it can be disconcerting to those who are taking it for medical reasons to relieve pain. The experiment was done by Giovanni Marsicano of the University of Bordeaux in France and his colleagues. They removed the cannabinoid receptors that respond to marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient THC. These mice were just as poor at memorizing the location of a hidden platform in a water pool. However, when the receptors were removed from the astrocytes, the mice could find the platform just fine while on THC.

Of course, we are generalizing findings from research on mice to humans. Although one should be caution, many such generalizations have held up in the past. You can understand why research like this is difficult to perform with humans. Mariscano made the following statement: “It is likely that astrocytes have many more functions than we thought. Certainly their role in cognition is no being revealed.”

Fortunately the pain-relieving property of THC appears to work through the neurons, so it might be possible to design THC-type drugs that target neurons, and not glia, so that pain relief can be provided without the cognitive disruptions.

1Williams, R. (2012). What Marijuana Reveals About Memory. Scientific American Mind, July/August, p.10.

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