Oligodendrocytes changing the rules: action potentials in glia and oligodendrocytes controlling action potentials

Neuroscientist. 2008 Dec;14(6):540-3. doi: 10.1177/1073858408320294.


Two long-standing rules in cellular neuroscience must now be amended with the publication of two studies on myelin-forming glia in the CNS: 1) Neurons can no longer be considered the only cells that fire electric impulses in the brain. 2) Synapses between neurons are not the only way electrical information is regulated as it propagates through neural circuits: oligodendrocytes can cause rapid activity-dependent changes in spike latency. A category of oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) has been identified that can fire action potentials, and their excitation is driven by synapses from axons. This finding has relevance to excitotoxicity in ischemia, but the normal function may be to regulate myelination according to functional activity in axons. A second study reveals that action potential propagation through CNS axons can be rapidly regulated by oligodendrocytes. Mature oligodendrocytes in the rat hippocampus are depolarized by theta burst stimulation of axons, and when the oligodendrocytes are depolarized by current injection in paired whole-cell recordings with CA1 pyramidal neurons, the latency of impulse conduction through the axons it ensheathes rapidly decreases. This unprecedented finding suggests a dynamic role for myelin in regulating impulse transmission through axons, promoting neural synchrony among the multiple axons under the domain of an individual oligodendrocyte.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Central Nervous System / cytology*
  • Oligodendroglia / physiology*
  • Synapses / physiology