• /
  • 5/23
Gleeful for Glia
Gleeful for Glia
Studying Underdog Cells in the Nervous System

Laura Fontenas, Ph.D. Right: pseudocolored confocal image showing myelinating glial cells in the spinal cord and peripheral nervous system. Photography by Paige Russo

By Bethany Augliere

As an undergraduate at the University of Poitiers in France, Laura Fontenas, Ph.D., said the path forward became clear when she learned about glial cells — specialized cells in the brain and spinal cord that provide support to neurons. Now, Fontenas studies how these often-overlooked cells play a role in repairing a damaged nervous system.

“My 10-year-old self thought the only way to do science was to become a doctor,” said Fontenas, assistant professor of neuroscience in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. “Then I learned about glia in a neurobiology class and I immediately knew I found my passion. How these cells migrate long distances throughout the body to eventually stop and do their job in such a precise and timely manner really struck me.”

The nervous system is divided into two separate compartments that are connected, the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system, she said. Each half possess distinct cell types that often carry out a similar biological function. Fontenas studies glia that are located between the two halves of the nervous system, and that also make myelin, the protective coating around nerves. In some diseases that

myelin coating is damaged, called demyelinating diseases, like multiple sclerosis, for example. Fontenas is curious if “we can divert glia to the diseased half of the nervous system in order to repair demyelinating lesions.”

For her work, Fontenas uses zebrafish as a model. Unlike mouse embryos, zebrafish embryos are transparent and develop outside the mother’s body. “It is a powerful model that allows us to visualize early developmental processes at the cellular level, in a living intact animal,” she said.

Prior to joining FAU, she worked as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia. She completed her doctorate degree in neuroscience at the University of Paris-Sud, Orsay, France.

“FAU was very attractive to me because I get to work in a dynamic environment where the research and the model organisms are very diverse,” she said. “The presence of the Stiles-Nicholson Brain institute and so many neuroscientists on one campus is great for collaboration opportunities and for my personal growth. I toured the Brain Institute building and my first thought was wow, this place is an amusement park for neuroscientists.”

To top