Brain City

Researchers at UCR’s Center for Glial-Neuronal Interactions are helping science navigate beyond neurons

By Michelle Woo

A couple decades ago, when many brain researchers would gaze through their microscopes and see glial cells, they’d look right past them. Though abundant, the tiny structures weren’t thought to do much, except provide insulation and housekeeping to support the real darlings of the central nervous system (CNS): the neurons, those spindly, highly interconnected cells that allow us to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and move.

Monica Carson, Director, Center for Glial-Neuronal Interactions (Photo by Carrie Rosema)

But as the spotlight shined on the brain’s superstars, Monica Carson, a professor of biomedical sciences at UCR and chair of the division, couldn’t stop thinking about all that stuff between the neurons. She entered the field of neuroscience completely intrigued by microglia, a type of glial cell.

“They were incredibly gorgeous,” she said, picturing their spider-like shape and delicate branches. “They were everywhere in the brain and spinal cord, and they were virtually being ignored.”

So, she started testing them. And what Carson and a growing community of scientists kept seeing was that glia had a purpose far beyond support work. Study after study showed that these cells were, in fact, indispensable partners to neurons, influencing neuronal signaling in a variety of very specific ways.

Microglia had been thought to play a major role in the brain’s defense against pathogens and injuries, such as concussions, but few studies looked at their functions directly. She and her team found the cells to be incredibly specialized, significant enough to speculate that a dysfunction may likely contribute to neurologic diseases. Research has uncovered the involvement of glia in nearly every aspect of brain function, including brain development, information processing, and psychiatric illness.

At last, glia are emerging from the shadows and getting the attention they deserve. UCR is helping lead a national conversation about the long-overlooked cells with the Center for Glial-Neuronal Interactions (CGNI), of which Carson is director. The mission: to understand CNS function at a molecular level in hopes of identifying risk factors for brain disease and discovering new therapies.

“What makes your town work is all of these things coming together.” – Monica Carson, director, Center for Glial-Neuronal Interactions

What the members aim to understand is how glia work in close association with neurons. Think of the brain as a city, Carson said. To focus exclusively on the neurons is problematic.

“It’s pretty much like saying, ‘Well, I know how this city works because I know the most famous celebrities, but I don’t pay attention to the police, the firemen, the trash pickup, and the grocery store employees,’” she said. “What makes your town work is all of these things coming together.”

Each type of glia has distinct responsibilities — for instance, astrocytes maintain homeostasis, microglia fight infection and respond to injury, and oligodendrocytes form myelin, the protective covering around the axons of nerve fibers. The health of these cells influences the development of many common health issues seen today, including Huntington’s disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia.

Each year, CGNI hosts the Southern California Symposium on Glial-Neuronal Interactions in Health and Diseases, where more than 200 participants from across the state and beyond explore CNS function during health and disease. The center is also hoping to create a forum that will integrate various neuroscience communities across the UCR campus. This year’s symposium is scheduled for March 24 at the Riverside Convention Center.

“The synergies that have come out of this have been very exciting,” Carson said. “It’s always about the interaction between the parts.”

Visit to learn more about the Center for Glial-Neuronal Interactions.