The Rise of Glia

Six years ago, when I was just starting to dig deep into the brain and brain diseases, I picked up a book called The Other Brain. It was a confusing read so early in my journey. Everything I believed the brain to be, basically just an elaborate bundle of neurons firing electrical pulses, was now obscured by these pesky glia cells that seemed to be a key cog in everything the brain was doing.

In some parts of the brain, these “other” cells outnumber neurons nearly 4:1. They are the brain’s defense system, scaffolding, clean up crew, maintenance workers, plumbers, traffic cops, firefighters, and more. They play a role in just about every function that the brain performs, and have been linked to almost every disease that afflicts it.

The deeper I dug the more I came to believe that something happening within my own glia cells must be part of the symptoms I was experiencing.

And yet, outside of tight academic circles, they are rarely discussed. Sixteen years of a liberal arts education and I never even heard the word glia. Even in popular neuroscience literature they are overlooked. Plenty of other brain related terms and concepts have seeped into public awareness, like neuroplasticity or dopamine. Even the Medulla Oblongata has gotten its 15 minutes. of fame. Strange because as far as I can tell, of all the that we are made of glia cells might just play the biggest role in determining who and what we are.

So, lately I’ve been trying to do something about that. A couple months ago I started working with a game developer to see if I could come up with a fun way to get people to learn a bit about glia. The end product did not come out exactly as I would have liked, but I have since began working with another developer to see if we can’t turn it into something both fun and educational. Around it I have put together some material to help people appreciate glia a little more. It is still a work in progress but you can see it all at…

If anyone reading this has anything they would like to contribute, or sees anything I got wrong, please let me know. I hope to grow this into a resource that anybody can go to and learn something about these sticky little cells that are so vital to our ability to learn anything at all.

Finally, here is a link to some graphic art that’s been keeping me busy during these prolonged lockdowns that are starting to feel a little too normal.

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