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20 November 2008

Astrophysicists peer into the far corners of deep space for dark matter, but for neuroscientists at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) exploring the unknown is much closer to home.

Astrophysicists peer into the far corners of deep space for dark matter, but for neuroscientists at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) exploring the unknown is much closer to home.

They have discovered a mechanism vital to the development of the hippocampus - a region of the brain crucial to the formation of memories - and the lifelong production and integration of new nerve cells.

To say the hippocampus is important is a bit like saying breathing is optimal.

According to QBI’s Associate Professor Linda Richards, despite the crucial role performed by the hippocampus throughout life, knowledge of this region’s early development remains surprisingly scant. Her research team is looking at how the brain forms during embryonic and foetal development.

Dr Richards and her colleagues have identified a gene that regulates the development of glial cells in the hippocampus. Their research shows that the hippocampus contains different populations of glial cells that are essential for the structural integrity of the hippocampus.

“Glial cells are an important part of the building blocks of the brain,” Dr Richards said.

“They provide an essential scaffold for the migration of neurons in the developing brain. It is vital we understand how glial cells provide this structural scaffold because if the hippocampus is not formed correctly it cannot perform all the functions required of it in the developing and adult brain,” she said.

“The hippocampus plays an integral role in spatial navigation, learning and memory, and is a major site for adult neurogenesis.”

Mice lacking the gene that regulates glial cell differentiation exhibit major developmental irregularities, including catastrophic structural deformities of the hippocampus.

Equipped with this knowledge, researchers studying the hippocampus now have a better understanding of the genes that help control the development of this vital brain region. Fundamental scientific knowledge of this kind is an essential step in understanding brain function and repair.

The research appears in this week’s edition of the Journal of Neuroscience: “Specific glial populations regulate hippocampal morphogeneis”. See the paper online

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For more information, please contact:
QBI Communications Office
Tel: +61 7 3346 6434

Notes to the Editor
QUEENSLAND BRAIN INSTITUTE
The Queensland Brain Institute was formed in 2003 as part of the Queensland Government’s Smart State Initiative, building on a long history of neuroscience at The University of Queensland. QBI is dedicated to understanding the molecular basis of brain function and applying this knowledge to the development of new therapeutics to treat brain and mental health disorders.