Coined in the mid-19th century, the word “glia” is Greek for “nerve glue.” For years scientists thought that glia were connective tissue cells that held neurons in place. But in the past few decades, new experimental techniques and many researchers have revealed that glia plays significant roles in orchestrating brain development, maintaining brain health, and the body’s response to brain injuries, aging, and disease.

This week, 899 neuroscientists and trainees from across the world met virtually at the seventh international Glial Biology in Medicine Conference, hosted by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, in collaboration with Nature Conferences, to share insights and broaden the field of glial research.

“We were honored to host an exceptional cadre of international speakers at this year’s conference, and were very gratified to see such a large audience of attendees from over 30 nations,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “The large and truly global participation in this conference is a testament to the importance of brain research, and in particular the formerly niche area of glial biology, which has emerged as a field of central importance of exploration among in brain research over the last several decades.”

Glial cells are found throughout the central and peripheral nervous systems, and are the most abundant cell type in mammalian brains. But they are not all alike.

Unlike neurons, glial cells do not conduct electrical signals via synapses, the chemical signaling structures that connect neurons – but some glia, such as astrocytes, release signaling molecules that support the growth and maintenance of healthy synapses. Other types of glial cells, oligodendrocytes, extend processes that wrap around neuronal axons to form a protective layer – the myelin sheath, which facilitates rapid conduction of electrical signals. Microglia prune and refine synaptic connections and also play important roles in the brain’s immune and inflammatory responses to injury and disease.

“As we come to appreciate the heterogeneity of glial cell subtypes, we are uncovering the diversity of their unique roles in the brain and are revealing new therapeutic approaches to advance brain medicine. That is why this conference is so critical: it allows researchers from across the world to meet future collaborators, share data, and continue to advance this important area of study,” said Harald Sontheimer, a pioneer in the field of glial biology research and former professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. 

The conference was initially conceived of and organized by Sontheimer, who is now a professor and chair of the Department of Neuroscience at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. In collaboration with Friedlander, they began the first glial conference in 2008 at the University of Alabama at Birmingham with the meetings being held every other year. The last meeting hosted by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute was held in Roanoke in 2018.

The talks covered a wide range of topics, including:

  • Glial Cell Development.
  • The Role of Glia in Aging and Dementia.
  • Glia Adaptations after Injury and Disease.
  • Role of Glia in Learning and Memory.
  • Glial Regulation of Circuits and Behavior.

The conference was administratively supported by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, in collaboration with Nature Aging, Nature Communications, Nature Neuroscience, and Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

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