Making Connections

Researchers discover how brain cells make long-distance connections, possible insights into autism and epilepsy

(RxWiki News) The brain consists of a complex web of connections. In order for people to integrate and synthesize information from various parts of the brain, brain cells create long-distance links between one another.

According to new research published in PLoS Computational Biology, brain cells must create these links early in the developmental process, when their physical proximity is greater, to establish a connection throughout a person's life.

The number of brain cell connections is crucial to healthy development of the human brain. Disorders such as autism, epilepsy, and schizophrenia are associated with variations in the number of long-distance connections. For many years, scientists have known that long-distance connections form early in the developmental process. They have also known the crucial role of those connections in the integration of aural (audio) and visual signals. However, research by Dr. Marcus Kaiser and Sreedevi Varier from Newcastle University shows for the first time the most common mechanism by which long-distance connections form.

Kaiser and Varier analyzed the relationship between time of birth and patterns of nerve cell connections in the roundworm. They found that a connection forms between two nerve cells when they develop close together. As an organism grows, the distance between those cells also grows, thus creating what is called a long-distance connection.

According to Varier, this finding does not yet have clinical applications. However, she notes that further research might eventually provide scientists with a better understanding of epilepsy and autism.

Review Date: 
January 8, 2011