Recently we explored the concept that we typically use only a small percentage of our brains and realized that this is an erroneous idea. But, one of the possible reasons for­­ that idea leads us to the topic of glial cells – the underappreciated and little understood protectors and nourishers of the reputed stars of the brain: the signal transmitting neurons.

There are several types of glial cells that have a wide range of functions in making your brain work the way it does. Some provide a supportive framework or scaffolding to direct neurons to connect properly; others feed and supply oxygen to neurons; and still others protect neurons from pathogens and remove dead neurons.

You undoubtedly have heard of gray matter and white matter in the brain. The so-called white matter is actually something called myelin. A fatty “insulation” that speeds the transmission of nervous signals. The myelin is formed as glial cells grow around the axons of neurons.

One thing once thought to be outside the purview of glial cells was a role in actual transmission of a signal. However, in recent years ­it has been discovered that glial cells do play some role in assisting transmission.

Most recently researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies have been investigating something called gamma waves in the brain. These are oscillations associated with higher brain functions such as memory and anticipation of something. Disruptions in these waves are correlated with conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.

As it turns out these oscillations can be modulated by affecting, not neurons, but a type of glial cells called astrocytes. These finding were reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Click here for link to a summary of the report that has been published in Science Daily.

The connection to the notion that we use only 10% of our brains may be due in part to the fact that glial cells make up most of our brains.