Science is rarely eureka moments and instead hard work for slender strands of revelation. However, a team of scientists from the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute have done what many scientists envy: they’ve made a serendipitous discovery of what they claim “solves” a century-old mystery around a web-like structure in the brain.
This puzzling matrix of molecules, known as perineuronal nets, wrap around certain neurons and dendrites. They have been implicated in plasticity, disease, and aging, but their precise function remains unclear.
Now, the team led by Harald Sontheimer have discovered that the nets – at least in one capacity – are involved in modulating electrical impulses in the brain. Even more compelling is what happened when the scientists dissolved these nets: brain seizures.
"It was a surprise to see this bystander effect of seizure activity once the neurons were stripped of their nets,” said Sontheimer, executive director of the School of Neuroscience, in a statement.
The scientists were not initially investigating these matrixes, but instead studying epilepsy in mouse models brought on by terminal brain cancer known as glioblastoma.
Glioblastoma is a difficult type of cancer to treat due to the confined nature of the skull and the ability of tumor cells to spread rapidly. Since the cancerous cells are limited to our noggin’s chamber of bone, it must kill healthy cells first in order to make more room to grow and infect new tissue. The prognosis for adults with this disease is bleak, with a 5 percent survival rate five years after diagnosis.
To kill healthy cells, the tumors secrete glutamate in high amounts in order to have room to flourish. The glutamate seems to specifically target brain cells producing GABA – a neurotransmitter that inhibits neurons from getting too overexcited, without which the brain can seize.