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Scientists identify a mechanism that cleans the brain

While we all know how important it is to keep our environment clean if we want to stay healthy, did you know that our brain also needs regular cleaning?

According to scientists from Spain’s Achucarro Basque Center for Neuroscience, the University of the Basque Country and the Ikerbasque Foundation, their recent research has enabled them to identify the mechanism that keeps the brain spick and span during neurodegenerative diseases.

Under normal circumstances, when the neurons in our brains die the debris is cleared away quickly to enable the continuance of the normal functioning of the surrounding brain tissue. This is carried out during a process called phagocytosis, where highly specialised brain cells called microglia clear away the dead neurons. Until this recent research it was believed that these tiny microglia were able to detect and destroy any foreign bodies in the brain – however, now it seems that that is not the case.

This latest piece of research carried out has concentrated on discovering more about the phagocytosis process, particularly in the diseased brain. To do so, the team collected brain samples from both epileptic mice and from patients with epilepsy who had been treated at the University Hospital of Cruces.

During epileptic seizures, some of the neurons in the brain die. However, from studying the tissues from the brain samples, the researchers found that far from clearing away these dead neurons following an epileptic seizure, the microglia seemed totally unable to find and destroy the neurons. This meant that the dead neurons simply accumulated, spreading damage to other neurons in the tissue. Furthermore, they also triggered an inflammatory response that actually made the brain injury worse.

This new discovery has given the team new insight into the phagocytosis process to enable them to find and explore alternative therapies to lessen the effects of diseases of the brain. They’ve already made a start on developing drugs which will be able to boost this cleaning process in an effort to find new treatments for epilepsy.

The research was coordinated from Spain, in conjunction with scientists from the University of Bordeaux in France, the University of Southampton, Laval University in Canada, and Baylor College of Medicine in USA, and was published in a recent edition of online journal PLOS Biology.

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