Long believed to merely glue the brain together (GLIA, the Greek word for Glue), recent research suggests that glial cells are of fundamental importance in normal brain development and essential for normal functioning to the nervous system. Their roles range from the mundane to the highly sophisticated and unexpected. For example, glial cells regulate the tone of cerebral blood vessels, thereby influencing nutrient and oxygen supply to the brain and spinal cord. Radial glial cells guide the orderly migration of immature neurons in the embryonic brain. Oligodendroglial cells and Schwann cells (peripheral glia) produce the isolating lipid rich myelin sheet that covers neuronal processes to permit rapid propagation of an electrical signal. Astroglial cells (Astrocytes) closely encapsulate synapses, the sites where nerve cells communicate through the release of neurochemicals, which are then taken up by astrocytes. Infections and inflammation activates astrocytes to release cytokines which in turn mount immunoresponses in the nervous system. Finally injury to nervous tissues invariably causes astrocytes to seal off the injury by forming a glia scar.
These are just a few examples that highlight the many support functions of glial cells and why their health is critical to prevent neurological disease. It therefore appears timely to devote a larger research effort entirely to the study of glial cells in health and disease, which is the primary mission of UAB's Center for Glial Biology in Medicine (CGBM). A secondary mission of the center is to serve as a clearing house for information to be shared among glial scientist world-wide.