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If one desired to throw new light on the effect of disease, or injury, and of the process of healing in the brain, the best hope lay in the study of the non-nervous cells.
No Man Alone, Wilder Penfield, 1977 (Gill and Binder, 2007)
For the past 160 or so years the cells of the nervous system have been divided into two main categories: neurons and glia (Kettenmann and Verkhratsky, 2008). Prior to this, ever since the first image of a neuron was published in 1836 by Gabriel Valentin, the nerve cell had been in a class of its own (Lopez-Munoz et al., 2006). Some 20 years later in 1856 the term neuroglia was introduced by the German physician Rudolph Virchow. Virchow, also known as the “Pope of pathology” (Kettenmann and Ransom, 2005; Magner, 2002), described a “connective substance … in which nervous system elements are embedded” and referred to it as “nervenkitt” (or nerve putty). This description led to the use of the term “neuroglia,” which derives from archaic Greek, meaning something sticky or clammy. The notion that neuroglia were there merely as neural putty was treated with the reverence usually reserved for a bona fide papal encyclical and as such neuroglia remained sidelined for decades to come. Even though Virchow was responsible for the term neuroglia coming into use, at this stage he did not recognize that it was made up of cells rather than an acellular connective tissue.
For a long time neurons have blinded neuroscientists with their dazzling array of impulses and synapses. In thrall to these complex neural networks neuroscientists have often concentrated almost exclusively on neurons while the role of the macroglia – the oligodendrocytes and astrocytes – has remained in the shadows. We hope that this book will present a more integrated view of the relationship between oligodendrocytes and neurons and the critical role both cell types play in the central nervous system (CNS).
We aim to set out major aspects of the biology of the oligodendrocyte – a very large, very complex and dynamic cell – highlighting its extraordinarily unique organization and its multiple functions. For example, each oligodendrocyte can produce a plethora of up to 50 elongated paddle-like processes, each of which spirals around an internode of a different CNS axon. This spiraling process forms the compacted myelin lamellae and the associated uncompacted inner mesaxon, lateral paranodal regions and the outer mesaxons so often overlooked. The metabolic requirements and maintenance of such an elaborate organization of membranes depend on the uncompacted and compacted myelin compartments remaining in continuity. This continuity is achieved via the transverse processes and Schmidt–Lanterman incisures and ensures that vital cytoplasmic components have access to the compact myelin membranes. The orchestration of oligodendrocyte interaction with the neurons and other CNS cells is dependent on the precision of developmental processes including cell division, differentiation and migration to exact locations.
Traditionally, oligodendrocytes have been assumed to play a minor supporting role in the central nervous system and their importance has generally been overlooked. For the first time, this book provides a dedicated review of all of the major aspects of oligodendrocyte biology, including development, organization, genetics, and immunobiology. Later chapters emphasize the importance of this underestimated cell to the mammalian central nervous system by exploring the role of myelin synthesis and maintenance in neural disease and repair. Particular attention is paid to multiple sclerosis (MS), arguably the prime example of an acquired demyelinating disease, with detailed examinations of the current concepts regarding demyelination, oligodendroglial damage, and remyelination in MS lesions.
The Schwann cell is named in honour of the German physiologist Theodor Schwann (1810–1882, Figure 1.1) who is now acknowledged as the founder of modern histology. In addition to describing the Schwann cell, he made numerous contributions to the fields of biology, physiology and histology – not least as one of the instigators and main advocates of cell theory. The cell theory defined the cell as the base unit of all living organisms, and had great influence on the study of both plants and animals. The cell theory was radical for the time and irrevocably discredited Vitalism, the mainstream belief that life was attributed to a vital force. Among other things, Schwann is known for recognising that the crystals seen during fermentation, first reported by Leeuwenhoek in 1680, were in fact living organisms; although it was not until Pasteur in 1878 wrote to Schwann acknowledging this observation that Schwann's finding was accepted. In fact, Pasteur's germ theory stems from Schwann's work in which he showed that microorganisms were required for the putrefaction of meat.
Schwann spent his undergraduate years at the University of Bonn and then the equivalent of postgraduate study in Wuerzburg and Berlin. Schwann was appointed Professor of Anatomy at Louvain in 1839. In 1848 he moved to the Chair of Anatomy in Liege. In a biography of Schwann (Causey 1960), Causey reported that he avoided the strife of scientific controversy and appears to have risen above petty jealousies.
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