The Unexpected Cells Helping to Shape Young Brains

Summary: During brain development, oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) contribute to the neural pruning process, helping to shape the healthy development of the brain.

Source: CSHL

When the brain first wires itself up in early development, it creates more connections than it actually needs.

Some of these connections, or synapses, will transmit critical signals as young animals begin to sense their surroundings. Others will be eliminated as the brain matures.

Only those that the animal needs to understand and interact with the world are left.

Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) Assistant Professor Lucas Cheadle and colleagues have discovered that cells called oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) contribute to this pruning process. This helps shape a healthy brain during early development.

Understanding this vital part of brain development may reveal new strategies for treating neurodevelopmental conditions like schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The discovery was sparked while using high-powered microscopes to examine the brains of adult mice. Cheadle’s team noticed that many OPCs were actively engulfing the connection points between neurons.

The team suspected the cells might be busy eliminating synapses that the brain did not need. Cheadle and his team wondered if OPCs did the same thing in younger brains. A young animal’s experiences have a particularly profound impact on shaping neural circuits during early development.

This shows the OPC cells
Cells called OPCs, colored green, help the brain fine-tune its neural circuits as young animals develop. They engulf and eliminate connections, colored purple, the brain doesn’t need. Understanding this process may inform new treatments for neurological disorders. Credit: Cheadle lab/Imaris software/CSHL, 2022

The researchers raised young mice in the dark. When the mice were first exposed to light, OPCs began engulfing synapses in response. The cells were operating in their brain’s vision-processing circuitry.

“OPCs seem to be especially poised to regulate brain connections associated with experiences,” Cheadle says. “These cells are very responsive to new experiences. They can take that information and use it to shape brain connections.”

Published in Nature Neuroscience, the Cheadle team’s discovery reveals an unexpected role for OPCs. Several kinds of cells help shape neural circuits by eliminating unnecessary connections. OPCs had previously only been known for producing cells that surround and support neurons.

Cheadle says, “This is a cell type that’s really poised to sort of serve as an intermediary between what’s going on in the world out there and what’s happening inside of our brains.”

Cheadle hopes this new information will help understand neurodevelopmental disorders better. He plans to investigate whether faulty OPC pruning plays a role in conditions like schizophrenia and ASD.

About this neurodevelopment research news

Author: Press Office
Source: CSHL
Contact: Press Office – CSHL
Image: The image is credited to Cheadle lab/Imaris software/CSHL, 2022

Original Research: Open access.
Oligodendrocyte precursor cells engulf synapses during circuit remodeling in mice” by Yohan S. S. Auguste et al. Nature Neuroscience


Oligodendrocyte precursor cells engulf synapses during circuit remodeling in mice

Oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) give rise to myelinating oligodendrocytes throughout life, but the functions of OPCs are not limited to oligodendrogenesis.

Here we show that OPCs contribute to thalamocortical presynapse elimination in the developing and adult mouse visual cortex. OPC-mediated synapse engulfment increases in response to sensory experience during neural circuit refinement.

Our data suggest that OPCs may regulate synaptic connectivity in the brain independently of oligodendrogenesis.

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  1. It’s becoming clear that with all the brain and consciousness theories out there, the proof will be in the pudding. By this I mean, can any particular theory be used to create a human adult level conscious machine. My bet is on the late Gerald Edelman’s Extended Theory of Neuronal Group Selection. The lead group in robotics based on this theory is the Neurorobotics Lab at UC at Irvine. Dr. Edelman distinguished between primary consciousness, which came first in evolution, and that humans share with other conscious animals, and higher order consciousness, which came to only humans with the acquisition of language. A machine with primary consciousness will probably have to come first.

    What I find special about the TNGS is the Darwin series of automata created at the Neurosciences Institute by Dr. Edelman and his colleagues in the 1990’s and 2000’s. These machines perform in the real world, not in a restricted simulated world, and display convincing physical behavior indicative of higher psychological functions necessary for consciousness, such as perceptual categorization, memory, and learning. They are based on realistic models of the parts of the biological brain that the theory claims subserve these functions. The extended TNGS allows for the emergence of consciousness based only on further evolutionary development of the brain areas responsible for these functions, in a parsimonious way. No other research I’ve encountered is anywhere near as convincing.

    I post because on almost every video and article about the brain and consciousness that I encounter, the attitude seems to be that we still know next to nothing about how the brain and consciousness work; that there’s lots of data but no unifying theory. I believe the extended TNGS is that theory. My motivation is to keep that theory in front of the public. And obviously, I consider it the route to a truly conscious machine, primary and higher-order.

    My advice to people who want to create a conscious machine is to seriously ground themselves in the extended TNGS and the Darwin automata first, and proceed from there, by applying to Jeff Krichmar’s lab at UC Irvine, possibly. Dr. Edelman’s roadmap to a conscious machine is at

    1. Problem here is to create a level of consciousness effectively equivalent to an insect would be a major challenge, so the questions becomes; Why are you doing this? We have enough insects.
      We pretend we have solved how human memory works because we have replicated how insects learn. We understand Human memory about as well as we understand the force of gravity, which in reality is, not really.

    2. If you seek to, and somehow achieve true ‘artificial’ consciousness, will you be happy with the result? Just like first time parents, do not think that your methods of teaching will be ‘perfect’.
      We have a very intelligent mammal that we can train, but cannot understand, namely Dolphins. What makes you think we will better understand a conscious being built out of silicon and mechanics? it will not share even a fraction of our DNA. We can train it, but once ‘connected’ to the outside world / internet etc we start losing control, just like a child leaving the nest. Only reason I am not frightened is I do not believe it will be feasible for some time (if ever) to create an artificial conscious being that way.

  2. “OPCs seem to be especially poised to regulate brain connections associated with experiences,” Cheadle says. “These cells are very responsive to new experiences. ”
    NOTE: In both Adult and Young. The article focuses on the young, but gives no evidence that the OPC behavior is any less significant in the older subjects.
    “They can take that information and use it to shape brain connections.” As though this is going to be a sophisticated ‘intelligent design’ algorithm.
    Stop trying to consider “autism spectrum disorder (ASD)” as a defect rather than yet another “spectrum’ that covers the broad range of human characteristics, each of which is found to be a survival trait in certain situations, such as today, where ‘Nerds Rule’.
    “Several kinds of cells help shape neural circuits by eliminating unnecessary connections.” Where is the evidence that these connections are “unnecessary”?
    Rather; Consider that these new experiences no doubt cause neurons to fire and perhaps cause other biological phenomena that can ‘attract’ these OPCs.
    Considering they degrade neural connections associated with ‘new’ experiences, perhaps they are related to the normal degradation of memory.
    Perhaps try comparing OPC behaviors between people who have exceptional memory versus those with terrible memory (natural or due to senility etc…).

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