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Changes to the Glia with Age

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  • 0:02 Late Adulthood
  • 0:54 Glia
  • 2:55 Effects of Aging
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Most people have heard of neurons, but did you know that there's another type of brain cell? In this lesson, we'll explore glial cells, what they do, the way they work, what happens to them as we age, and how that can affect us.

Late Adulthood

Zara is 70 years old, and she's starting to experience some things differently. Sometimes, she has muscle spasms. She doesn't move as smoothly as she used to, either; sometimes, her movements are awkward and choppy. Zara is in late adulthood, or the time of life after age 65. During that time, people experience many physical changes. Some of them are due to changes in specific parts of the body, like arthritis in joints or heart issues.

But sometimes, symptoms like Zara's can be attributed to changes in the brain in late adulthood. A muscle spasm, for example, might happen because of something in the muscle, but it could also happen because of a change in Zara's brain. Let's look closer at the changes that occur in the brain as we age, particularly with regards to glia.

Glia

Let's take a trip into the brain of Zara. Her brain is made up of cells, called neurons, which are brain cells that communicate with each other. When Zara wants to move her leg, one neuron says to the other, 'Hey, let's move that leg.' Then that one says to the next, 'We're going to move that leg.' This happens over and over again in a chain reaction that leads to Zara moving her leg. But neurons aren't the only cells in Zara's brain. Glial cells, which are often called glia, are nervous system cells other than neurons. They help support neurons and maintain homeostasis in the brain and nervous system.

Think about it like this: Imagine that you're a neuron. You're hanging out with your friends, the other neurons. One of your friends tries to get your attention by tapping you on the shoulder. But, what if your friend's tap knocked you over? You fall over and knock over your other friend, who falls over and knocks over someone else. One after another, like dominoes, all your friends fall over. On the other hand, what if your friend's tap doesn't register at all? You don't even notice that your friend is trying to get your attention, so you don't get to hear the news that he has to say.

One role of glia is to help neurons communicate with each other in a normal way. The glia in Zara's brain keeps the neurons from communicating in such a way that one message can spread so quickly and cause problems, like when you and your buddies fell over. On the other hand, if the neurons in Zara's brain aren't sensitive at all, they won't respond to messages from each other, like when you didn't notice your friend was trying to communicate with you.

Both of these problems - neurons that are too active and neurons that aren't active enough - can cause issues in the way that Zara operates within her environment. Her muscle spasms, for example, could be due to neurons either being too active or not active enough. Her glia is there to try to help her neurons communicate. But, what happens to glia when people age?

Effects of Aging

Okay, so Zara is 70, and her body is changing. She's got wrinkles now, and she's gained a little weight since she was younger. She's also experiencing issues with movement and muscle spasms, both of which are more common in late adulthood. Zara's brain is changing, too. Specifically, her glia is changing. Some types of glia are more active in late adulthood. What does this mean?

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