Myelin Research Comes to the Fore

Neurons have long taken center stage in neuroscience research. Lately, though, the study of myelin — the specialized membrane that sheaths the axons of some neurons and which makes up nearly 50 percent of brain volume — has been catching up. Recent developments have shown the importance of myelin in healthy behavior and learning and identified myelin abnormalities as important causes of human disease.

The 2018 Gordon Research Conference on Myelin, co-chaired by Patrizia Casaccia, director of the Neuroscience Initiative at the Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) of The Graduate Center of The City University of New York and David Rowitch of the University of Cambridge, highlighted how vast and promising myelin research has become.

“It was an honor to be elected to organize this important conference,” said Casaccia. “In a few intensive days, we heard from top neuroscience researchers and discussed their findings and potential new directions. Sponsorship from places like the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society underscored the medical potential of myelin research.”

The conference’s scientific program addressed the latest developments in understanding myelin function and dysfunction through the lifespan. The meeting started with an evolutionary perspective and moved through the different stages of life, from the fetus (myelin is needed for fetuses to move in utero) to childhood (myelin has been shown to be related to parental care and there have been interesting studies on the development of myelinated tracts in orphans after adoption) to adolescence (where sex differences in myelin may be first detected) and finally to adulthood and aging (when several diseases of myelin may have devastating consequences).

Sarah Moyon, postdoctoral research associate in the ASRC’s Neuroscience Initiative, addressed myelin and aging with her talk, “Oligodendrocytes, Aging, Epigentics, DNA Methylation,” for approximately 200 attendees. Selected after a competitive application process, Moyon discussed the intrinsic differences in DNA methylation occurring with aging and how those affect declining myelin function and the brain’s ability to repair myelin loss.

The conference left a lasting impression on the students and emerging researchers who attended. A blog captures their positive reactions and takeaways.