A research team led by Michael Fox, director of our School and also a professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, has identified the type of brain cell that produces collagen 19, a protein that is crucial for the formation of inhibitory circuits in the brain.

The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, depicts a previously unknown molecular mechanism underlying healthy brain development. 

Neurons and glia are the most abundant types of brain cells. Glia, in particular star-shaped glia called astrocytes, release molecules that support the growth and maintenance of healthy synapses, the chemical communication structures between neurons and their targets including other neurons. Yet in this study, Fox’s team discovered that a type of neuron called an interneuron, a cell type that processes information, produces the majority of brain-derived collagen 19 to stimulate synapse formation.

Roughly 20 percent of a person’s body mass is made of collagens, which form the matrix of connective tissue that wraps around organs, muscles, and cellular structures. Because of the complex molecular structure of collagens, just a small genetic variation alters the protein’s shape, rendering the collagen molecule useless waste that cells destroy and recycle for parts.

Collagen genetic mutations are linked to a litany of connective tissue disorders, but Fox says they’re still underexplored in the brain.