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Neural cell type
Oligodendrocytes form the electrical insulation around the axons of CNS nerve cells.
Oligodendrocytes (from Greek 'cells with a few branches'), or oligodendroglia, are a type of neuroglia whose main functions are to provide support and insulation to axons in the central nervous system of some vertebrates, equivalent to the function performed by Schwann cells in the peripheral nervous system. Oligodendrocytes do this by creating the myelin sheath. A single oligodendrocyte can extend its processes to 50 axons, wrapping approximately 1 ?m of myelin sheath around each axon; Schwann cells, on the other hand, can wrap around only one axon. Each oligodendrocyte forms one segment of myelin for several adjacent axons.
Oligodendrocytes are found only in the central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord. These cells were originally thought to have been produced in the ventral neural tube; however, research now shows oligodendrocytes originate from the ventral ventricular zone of the embryonic spinal cord and possibly have some concentrations in the forebrain. They are the last cell type to be generated in the CNS. Oligodendrocytes were discovered by Pío del Río Hortega.
Most oligodendrocytes develop during embryogenesis and early postnatal life from restricted periventricular germinal regions. Oligodendrocyte formation in the adult brain is associated with glial-restricted progenitor cells, known as oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs).SVZ cells migrate away from germinal zones to populate both developing white and gray matter, where they differentiate and mature into myelin-forming oligodendrocytes. However, it is not clear whether all oligodendrocyte progenitors undergo this sequence of events.
Between midgestation and term birth in human cerebral white matter, three successive stages of the classic human oligodendrocyte lineage are found: OPCs, immature oligodendrocytes (non-myelinating), and mature oligodendrocytes (myelinating). It has been suggested that some undergo apoptosis and others fail to differentiate into mature oligodendrocytes but persist as adult OPCs. Remarkably, oligodendrocyte population originated in the subventricular zone can be dramatically expanded by administering epidermal growth factor (EGF).
Mammalian nervous systems depend crucially on myelin sheaths, which reduce ion leakage and decrease the capacitance of the cell membrane, for rapid signal conduction. Myelin also increases impulse speed, as saltatory propagation of action potentials occurs at the nodes of Ranvier in between Schwann cells (of the PNS) and oligodendrocytes (of the CNS). Furthermore, impulse speed of myelinated axons increases linearly with the axon diameter, whereas the impulse speed of unmyelinated cells increases only with the square root of the diameter. The insulation must be proportional to the diameter of the fibre inside. The optimal ratio of axon diameter divided by the total fiber diameter (which includes the myelin) is 0.6.
Oligodendrocytes in rat cerebellum stained with antibody to myelin basic protein in red and for DNA in blue. Two oligodendrocyte cell bodies are clearly visible as well as several myelinated axons. These are hollow tubes and so appear as "tramlines" in this confocal image. Most of the DNA is in the nuclei of cerebellum granule cells, which are small interneurons. Image and antibody stain from EnCor Biotechnology Inc.
Myelination is only prevalent in a few brain regions at birth and continues into adulthood. The entire process is not complete until about 25-30 years of age. Myelination is an important component of intelligence, and white matter quantity may be positively correlated with IQ test results in children. Rats that were raised in an enriched environment, which is known to increase cognitive flexibility, had more myelination in their corpus callosi.
Oligodendrocytes interact closely with nerve cells and provide trophic support by the production of glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor (GDNF), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), or insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). They may also directly provide metabolites to neurons, as described by the lactate shuttle hypothesis.
It is hypothesized that satellite oligodendrocytes (or perineuronal oligodendrocytes) are functionally distinct from other oligodendrocytes. They are not attached to neurons via myelin sheaths and, therefore, do not contribute to insulation. They remain opposed to neurons and regulate the extracellular fluid. Satellite oligodendrocytes are considered to be a part of the grey matter whereas myelinating oligodendrocytes are a part of the white matter. They may support neuronal metabolism. Satellite oligodendrocytes may be recruited to produce new myelin after a demyelinating injury.
Raine, C.S. (1991). Oligodendrocytes and central nervous system myelin. In Textbook of Neuropathology, second edition, R.L. Davis and D.M. Robertson, eds. (Baltimore, Maryland: Williams and Wilkins), pp. 115-141.