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Keywords:

  • white matter;
  • astrocyte;
  • microglia;
  • GSK-3;
  • metabolic;
  • RAS;
  • apolipoprotein;
  • degeneration;
  • MRI

Historically, the human brain has been conceptually segregated from the periphery and further dichotomized into gray matter (GM) and white matter (WM) based on the whitish appearance of the exceptionally high lipid content of the myelin sheaths encasing neuronal axons. These simplistic dichotomies were unfortunately extended to conceptually segregate neurons from glia, cognition from behavior, and have been codified in the separation of clinical and scientific fields into medicine, psychiatry, neurology, pathology, etc. The discrete classifications have helped obscure the importance of continual dynamic communication between all brain cell types (neurons, astrocytes, microglia, oligodendrocytes, and precursor (NG2) cells) as well as between brain and periphery through multiple signaling systems. The signaling systems range from neurotransmitters to insulin, angiotensin, and multiple kinases such a glycogen synthase kinase 3 (GSK-3) that together help integrate metabolism, inflammation, and myelination processes and orchestrate the development, plasticity, maintenance, and repair that continually optimize function of neural networks. A more comprehensive, evolution-based, systems biology approach that integrates brain, body, and environmental interactions may ultimately prove more fruitful in elucidating the complexities of human brain function. The historic focus on neurons/GM is rebalanced herein by highlighting the importance of a systems-level understanding of the interdependent age-related shifts in both central and peripheral homeostatic mechanisms that can lead to remarkably prevalent and devastating neuropsychiatric diseases. Herein we highlight the role of glia, especially the most recently evolved oligodendrocytes and the myelin they produce, in achieving and maintaining optimal brain function. The human brain undergoes exceptionally protracted and pervasive myelination (even throughout its GM) and can thus achieve and maintain the rapid conduction and synchronous timing of neural networks on which optimal function depends. The continuum of increasing myelin vulnerability resulting from the human brain's protracted myelination underlies underappreciated communalities between different disease phenotypes ranging from developmental ones such as schizophrenia (SZ) and bipolar disorder (BD) to degenerative ones such as Alzheimer's disease (AD). These shared vulnerabilities also expose significant yet underexplored opportunities for novel treatment and prevention approaches that have the potential to considerably reduce the tremendous burden of neuropsychiatric disease. GLIA 2014;62:1856–1877