✍️ Author: Dr Eleni Christoforidou
🕒 Approximate reading time: 4 minutes
Oligodendrocytes are a type of glial cell found in the central nervous system (CNS). These cells are vital for neuronal health, predominantly due to their role in producing myelin, a fatty substance that insulates neuronal axons, enhancing the speed and efficiency of electrical signal transmission.
Oligodendrocytes are the CNS equivalent of the peripheral nervous system's Schwann cells. Both types of cells produce myelin, but while a single Schwann cell myelinates just one segment of one peripheral nerve fibre, a single oligodendrocyte can extend its processes to 40-50 axon segments, thereby myelinating multiple axon segments simultaneously.
Myelin is composed of various lipids and proteins and forms a protective sheath around axons. This sheath not only protects axons from damage but also facilitates the rapid propagation of electrical signals, or action potentials, along the axon. Without myelin, these signals would travel significantly slower, impairing neural communication.
Given the importance of oligodendrocytes and myelin in neuronal function, it's not surprising that damage to these cells or to the myelin sheath can lead to serious neurological conditions. Multiple sclerosis, for instance, is characterised by the degradation of the myelin sheath, leading to slower neural communication, muscle weakness, and other debilitating symptoms.
Research into the preservation and repair of oligodendrocytes and the myelin sheath is a hot topic in neuroscience. Some promising avenues include the investigation of specific growth factors that encourage oligodendrocyte proliferation, and exploration of drugs that could protect myelin from damage.
Oligodendrocytes and myelin are crucial components of the CNS, playing pivotal roles in maintaining neuronal function. Understanding how these components can be protected and restored could have significant implications for the treatment of a range of debilitating neurological disorders.