The fathers of the brain


By Simon Bell | Wednesday 12 June 2019

Around Father’s Day, many people across the country will be thanking their fathers for the support, love and very likely financial assistance they have given them throughout their lives. The relationship a father, or any individual, has with a child they care for is dynamic and complex. When we are young, fathers can help to support us in learning new skills, teach us how to eat and very often clean our mess up when we have made it. I have recently become a father and know how much time and energy these activities can take!

Interestingly, a very similar relationship to that of the father and child exists in the brain of each and every one of us. A group of cells found in the brain called astrocytes work, in some respects, like parents. They look after our nerve cells in the brain, called neurons, which give us our ability to remember things.

Both the parental astrocytes and the dependent neurons of the brain have important separate roles but depend on each other throughout their lives. They work in a partnership to allow the brain as a whole to perform its many functions.

Astrocytes: the fathers of the brain

In Alzheimer’s disease it has been shown that astrocytes sometimes don’t work as well as they could. Just like as a father, I might find looking after my child more difficult when she is ill, the astrocytes potentially struggle to look after the neurons in the brain in a similar situation.

My research

All brain cells have batteries that give them energy to work. These batteries are called mitochondria. My research looks at how the batteries of astrocytes work in people who are affected by Alzheimer’s disease. I want to understand if the batteries of astrocytes affect their ability to maintain neurons.

How do I get the brain cells?

To get astrocytes that I study I cannot just remove them from living people as this might harm them. To get around this problem I ask people with Alzheimer’s disease and people without the condition to donate a small sample of skin. I can then take this skin sample and transform it into brain cells such as astrocytes and neurons. I can do this as every cell in the human body has the blueprints to be any other type of body cell.

While we are still in our mother’s womb all the different cells of the human body are given a certain set of instructions by chemical messengers that allows them to become a specific type of cell such as hair, skin, brain or bone. My research uses these chemical messengers to reprogram skin cells into different types of brain cells.

This reprogramming of skin cells allows me to study different types of brain cells including the parent and child cells. I then perform different types of experiments that allow me to figure out how well the batteries of these different types of brain cells work in people with and without Alzheimer’s disease.

What has my research shown, and what is the future?

Simon and his daughter

Any father knows that you need a lot of energy to look after a child. So far, my research seems to show that the batteries that give energy to father cells in the brain don’t work as well as they should in people that have Alzheimer’s disease. This is important as it may contribute to why people get memory problems in Alzheimer’s disease.

In future I hope to treat the fatherly astrocytes with different types of drugs that we know correct deficits in cell battery function. This will hopefully lead to the development of new treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.

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Happy Father’s Day!

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About the author

Simon Bell

Dr Simon Bell is a Wellcome 4ward North Clinical Fellow working at the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience in Sheffield. Simon is both a neurologist and a researcher, whose PhD is funded by the Wellcome 4Ward North Clinic Academy & Alzheimer’s Research UK. Simon’s work looks at how brain cells called astrocytes may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease. He is supervised by Prof Dame Pam Shaw, Dr Heather Mortiboys, Dr Laura Ferraiuolo, and Dr Dan Blackburn.