Our research explained

About the brain

PREMSTEM research and the brain

Many of PREMSTEM’s researchers are experts in disorders related to the brain, such as cerebral palsy, and together bring years of experience studying different types of brain injury to the project. As a team, we’re trying to find a new therapy to reduce the effects of brain damage sometimes suffered by preterm babies. 

On this page we share our interest in the brain – one of the body’s largest and most complex organs!

Humans only use 10% of their brains

True or false?

False

Evidence shows that we use 100% of our brains over a day – just not always at the same given moment

What is the structure of the brain?

The brain consists of different parts with different functions. They work together to allow us to perform different types of task, from standing up to breathing – tasks the average person does without even thinking.

  • Cortex: The outermost layer of brain cells, the cortex is where thinking and voluntary movements originate.
  • Brain stem: Between the spinal cord and the rest of the brain, the brain stem controls basic functions like breathing and sleep.
  • Basal ganglia: A cluster of structures in the centre of the brain that coordinates messages between other areas of the brain.
  • Cerebellum: At the base and back of the brain, the cerebellum is responsible for coordination and balance.

The brain’s four lobes are also involved in different types of everyday task and bodily function.  

  • Frontal lobes: Problem solving and judgement, motor function.
  • Parietal lobes: Sensation, handwriting, body position.
  • Temporal lobes: Memory, hearing.
  • Occipital lobes: The location of the brain’s visual processing system.

Source: WebMD

Why is the brain vulnerable?

We all know that the brain is an important organ in our body. It’s also a very delicate and vulnerable one! To find out why, we’ve profiled different types of cell in the brain to find out what they do – and why a preterm birth can be disruptive to their development.

Neurons and neuroglial cells. Glial cells are non-neuronal cells in brain. There are different types of glial cells
Oligodendrocytes are one of the last types of cell to form in the brain. The brain grows rapidly in the final trimester of pregnancy, at a time when a preterm baby is having to grow outside the mother’s body. This is due in part to the work undertaken by oligodendrocytes – disruption to their work makes the preterm brain particularly vulnerable and prone to injury. Oligodendrocytes are primarily responsible for wrapping the neuron axons with myelin, a process known as myelination. Myelin helps the neurons to send messages quickly around the body. Oligodendrocytes also supply proteins to neurons which keep them healthy and help them to form connections (synapses) for passing messages to each other. Being born early interrupts oligodendrocyte development and can mean lasting problems in the preterm brain and its ability to send instructions.
Interneurons are found in the brain and spinal cord (the central nervous system or CNS). If the brain were an orchestra, the interneurons would play the role of the conductor! They help to tune and balance the excitatory signalling of the brain, allowing them to regulate the many activities which are taking place across the CNS. Specifically, they create the circuit between sensory and motor neurons – cells which take information in and then pass messages to parts of our body. Scientists have found links between preterm birth and a disruption in the number and location of interneurons – another reminder that the developing brain is vulnerable!
Astrocytes are a star-shaped glial cell with an important relationship with neurons. Did you know that Einstein’s brain had more astrocytes than the average person’s? These cells have long extensions coming off their bodies, allowing them to be in contact with thousands of neurons, which they help to keep healthy by providing vital nutrients. Astrocytes also help to form the blood-brain barrier (BBB). The BBB is a special wrapping around the blood vessels in the brain. The BBB is like a sieve that allows good things from your blood into your brain while keeping the bad parts out. In the developing brain of a baby, disruption to astrocyte activity can lead to lasting neurodevelopmental disorders.
Polydendrocytes are the brain’s ‘mystery glia’. Although they are found in both the white and grey matter, we know very little about them. They are mysterious as we have always confused them with ‘baby’ oligodendrocytes. Now we think that polydendrocytes not only give rise to oligodendrocytes, but maybe even neurons and astrocytes. Importantly, polydendrocytes don’t have to become anyone else to play a key role in immune responses to injury and remyelinating, by releasing chemicals into the brain. Polydendrocytes also interact directly with neurons, for example by supporting the growth of axons and signalling. We think that disruption to the timing and appearance of polydendrocytes can cause negative effects to the developing brain and affect the process of myelination.
Microglia: the housekeepers, gardeners, and protectors of the brain! Microglia make up 10-15% of all brain cells and are important for keeping the healthy brain clean and well organised. When activated in response to brain injury or infection they get to work destroying any invaders and trying to fix problems. A frequent cause of preterm birth is infection originating inside the uterus. As a response to the infection, the baby’s microglia switch from their healthy role of building the brain to protector mode, but this often does more harm than good, causing brain injury. Overactivated microglia also cause brain damage in disorders such as Alzheimer’s, stroke and traumatic injuries. Understanding how microglia change during injury could be vital to understanding how to protect the brain, in both younger and older people.

Did you know?

Day in the life of a neuroscientist

More information

Take a look at our fact sheet on preterm birth and brain injury, available to download in nine languages. 

For more brain facts, check out the following websites:

11 Fun Facts About Your Brain

25 Amazing Facts About the Human Brain You Should Probably Memorize

Brain Facts that make you go, “Hmmmmm”

Brain truth or myth 

How the brain works: Test your medical IQ 

PREMSTEM brain fact sheet (English)