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High levels of stress do not have the same effect on everybody: some individuals can show resilience and recover quickly, while other struggle to cope. Scientists have started to investigate how these differences may find their origin in biological processes, mainly by focusing on the role of neurons. However, neurons represent only one type of brain cells, and there is increasing evidence that interactions between neuronal and non-neuronal cells play an important role in the response to stress.
Oligodendrocytes are a common type of non-neuronal cells which shield and feed nerve cells. In particular, their membrane constitutes the myelin sheath, a protective coating that insulates neurons and allows them to better communicate with each other using electric signals.
Bonnefil et al. explored whether differences in oligodendrocytes could affect how mice responded to social stress. The rodents were exposed to repeated attacks from an aggressive mouse five minutes a day for ten days. After this period, ‘susceptible’ mice then avoided future contact with any other mice, while resilient animals remained interested in socializing.
Comparing the brain areas of resilient and susceptible mice revealed differences in the oligodendrocytes of the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that controls emotions and thinking. Susceptible animals had fewer mature oligodendrocytes and their neurons were covered in thinner and shorter segments of myelin sheaths. There was also evidence that, in these animals, the genes that regulate the maturation of oligodendrocytes were more likely to be switched off. Taken together, these results may suggest that, in certain animals, social stress disrupts the genetic program that controls how oligodendrocytes develop, potentially leading to neurons communicating less well.
To explore whether reduced amounts of myelin could be linked to decreased social behavior, Bonnefil et al. then damaged the myelin in the medial prefrontal cortex in another group of rodents. The mice were then less willing to interact with other animals until new sheaths had formed.
The results by Bonnefil et al. undercover how changes in non-neuronal cells can at least in part explain differences in the way individuals respond to stress. Ultimately, this knowledge may be useful to design new strategies to foster resilience.