Pictured:The dendrites of one neuron (red), and microglial cells (green).

Researchers in Dr. Brian MacVicar’s lab recently established a novel communication pathway between neurons and microglia, the brain’s immune cells.

According to Lasse Dissing-Olesen, the discovery that neurons use ATP (adenosine triphosphate, a molecule normally responsible for energy transfer within cells) to communicate with microglia is significant because microglia are involved in every kind of brain disease, so this discovery leads the lab further down the path to understanding how healthy brains fall victim to disease.

Dissing-Olesen, a PhD candidate who will complete his research at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health in May, was the first author on a paper recently published in The Journal of Neuroscience. The paper details the team’s discovery, including observing how neurons triggered microglia to extend their processes.

“Being here, at this centre, is beneficial – there are so many opportunities for collaboration and for knowledge translation across disciplines and between basic science and clinical practice.”

“It doesn’t get much better than that,” says Dissing-Olesen, who demonstrated this process using state-of-the-art imaging technology that enabled him and his colleagues to visualize the communication occurring in real-time.

“There’s still much to learn,” says Dissing-Olesen. “There has been a lot of focus on microglia in the diseased brain, but we need to understand the role of these immune cells in the healthy brain to really put them into context.”

“We’ve  opened up more interesting questions,” says Dissing-Olesen, who will go on to do his post-doctoral work at Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard University  in June. “Another research team might pick up where we left off. It’s just so exciting to participate in this process of discovery.”


Dissing-Olesen L, LeDue JM, Rungta RL, Hefendehl JK, Choi HB, MacVicar BA. Activation of neuronal NMDA receptors triggers transient ATP-mediated microglial process outgrowth. J Neurosci. 2014 Aug 6;34(32):10511-27. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0405-14.2014.