Cholesterol revs up your nerve cells
The fact that you have cholesterol in your brain tissue isn’t a new discovery, but the knowledge of what the cholesterol actually does up there is new. In November 2001, a group of French and German researchers at the Max-Delbruck Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin reported something extraordinary, so extraordinary that the lead researcher told fellow scientists at a meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, “We were definitely shocked.”
Before getting to the shocking part, take a timeout for a short but important lesson in neurology. About 90 percent of the cells in your brain are non-nerve cells called glial cells. Glial cells aren’t the cells through which brain cells communicate, so they have always seemed sort of blah.
Now comes the shocking part. The guys at Max-Delbruck discovered that glial cells contain cholesterol, which enables them to secrete a molecule that encourages the formation of synapses, teensy junctions in the brain where messages are exchanged among nerve cells. The molecule secreted by the glial cell is called apolipoprotein E (apoE). When the Berlin researchers added plain cholesterol to nerve cells in a laboratory dish, the nerve cells began to form synapses like crazy.
So should you start stuffing yourself with cholesterol-rich foods to jump-start your brain? In a word, no. Your glial cells make all the cholesterol your brain requires. The point of this section is just to let you know what cholesterol is doing up there in your head.