From a single cell to a full nervous system

Research has long been occupied by one of the great mysteries in life: how one single cell can form a human brain. In the last few years, thanks to new methods and technology, our knowledge of how the nervous system is developed has grown significantly. During a conference at Karolinska Institutet, we will get to know where the current frontiers are found.

Journalists are welcome to attend the conference and interview the researchers.

Conference: The Developing Brain
Time: 4 September 2014 at 08:30-17:00
Venue: Nobel Forum, Nobels väg 1, Karolinska Institutet Campus Solna

The conference will focus on the development of the brain from conception, in utero to the early post natal stages. If something goes wrong during this time, it may have major consequences, and many known psychiatric illnesses can be traced back to this period. Schizophrenia, autism, ADHD, bipolar disorder and anxiety syndrome are just a few examples.

“The brain is plastic and will adapt to changes. For this reason, it is not enough to know what has gone awry in an adult brain. Instead we must figure out what happened at an earlier stage, and how the brain then adapted to this problem,” says Jens Hjerling-Leffler, researcher of molecular neurobiology at Karolinska Institutet and one of the organisers behind the conference.

In later years, ground-breaking discoveries have been made within cellular neuroscience. It used to be scientific dogma that a neuron only contains a single neurotransmitter, which defines its identity. Nicholas Spitzer, Univ. California San Diego, USA, has challenged this idea, and has instead been able to prove that the neurons can actually change their identity by switching the neurotransmitter used to communicate. This discovery has led to a discussion on how various neurons are to be defined. Spitzer will be one of the speakers at the conference.

The neurons are not alone in controlling how the nervous system develops and functions. The glial cells, or supporting cells, also play a decisive role. One of the goals for the conference is to highlight the function of the glial cells in the development of the nervous system, and several of the speakers are experts on this type of cells. One of them is William Richardson, Univ. College London, UK, who has proven that a certain type of glial cells are formed over several cycles, and continue to form in adults. These oligodendrocytes provide the neurons with a form of insulation layer, the myelin, which allows signals between cells to travel more rapidly. The glial cells thus increase the efficiency of the neurons.

These glial cells also contain substances that are of vital importance for the survival and growth of the neurons. One type of glial cells, which is called astrocytes, also supplies the neurons with cholesterol, which softens the cell membranes. This is necessary to form synapses between neurons.

Progenitors are among the first cells in the development of the brain. They have yet to be given a function, and can therefore form many different types of cells. How do they get information about which type of neuron to form, and how many are needed? Stefan Thor at Linköping University has done research on this subject and will present at the conference.

If you have any questions, please contact:

Research group leader Jens Hjerling-Leffler
Tel +46 (0)8 - 524 869 74 or +46 (0)70-778 62 01

Research group leader Gonçalo Castelo-Branco
Tel +46 (0)8-524 879 36 or +46 (0)70-091 59 22

Press Officer Sabina Bossi
Tel +46 (0)8-524 860 66 or +46 (0)70-614 60 66

Karolinska Institutet is one of the world’s leading medical universities. It accounts for over 40 per cent of the medical academic research conducted in Sweden and offers the country’s broadest range of education in medicine and health sciences. Since 1901 the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet has selected the Nobel laureates in Physiology or Medicine.

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