Inside Iowa State
July 26, 1996
Vet med research may uncover answers to human brain disorders
by Steve Jones
The veterinary anatomy department may be more closely associated with animals than people, but someday humans may benefit from research by a neuroscientist in the department.
Srdija Jeftinija, who studies the brain and nervous system, is part of a research effort that may help unlock mysteries of neurological disorders, including Alzheimer's and Lou Gehrig's diseases.
Jeftinija ("yef-TIN-ee-ya") researches brain cells called glia. They once were thought to do little more than hold together better-known brain cells called neurons, for years credited with processing and transmitting information. (The name, glia, is even derived from the Greek word for "nerve glue," Jeftinija said.) Glial cells, however, have gained respect in recent years. Collaborating with Phil Haydon, professor of zoology and genetics, Jeftinija has shown glia have a higher function in the brain than previously given credit.
"It's been thought that neurons do the computation and communication with other parts of the brain to ensure complex functions of the organism," Jeftinija said. "We now believe glia may function similarly to neurons."
Jeftinija, a native of Serbia, learned a couple of years ago that glial cells release glutamate, a chemical that's important for normal function of the brain and central nervous system. Building upon Jeftinija's results, Haydon discovered that glutamate has an effect on neurons.
Together they determined that a type of glial cells called astrocytes communicate with neurons. Their theory is that astrocytes release glutamate, which binds to receptor sites on neurons, enabling the cells to communicate. Similar provocative results were seen by other researchers. Jeftinija and Haydon's work on cellular signaling was featured in a number of publications, including the prestigious journals Science and Nature.
Biomedical research like Jeftinija's is part of the College of Veterinary Medicine mission, said Prem Paul, associate dean for research. Paul noted that it's important to understand the basic physiological mechanisms to keep a balance between health and disease. Many times the results are applied to humans as well as animals.
Jeftinija has had an interest in the brain since he attended veterinary school in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in the 1970s. "Of all the systems in an organism, the brain was most appealing," he recalled. "I never considered research in any other field but neuroscience."
In the late 1970s, about the time Jeftinija came to Iowa State to work on a Ph.D., he started researching the physiology of pain. About a decade later, that work led to glia. Jeftinija said a better understanding of glial cells, which outnumber neurons about 10 to 1 and make up more than half of the brain mass, will give scientists new avenues to explore neurological processes and diseases.
Because of their huge numbers, glia have enormous capacity to release glutamate, Jeftinija said. Too much glutamate can lead to epilepsy or a stroke. A chronic excess could lead to Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease, or AIDS-related dementia, he said.
"It's hoped that by figuring the role of glia in the increased release of glutamate, a new target can be opened for drugs to control the level of free glutamate," Jeftinija explained.
The Iowa State cellular signaling research was done on isolated brain cells. The next step is to duplicate results using a section of brain tissue, then apply the knowledge to the whole brain.
"That will be much harder," Jeftinija said.
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