Published: 2022-05-06 13:20 | Updated: 2022-05-06 13:21

Oligodendrocytes arise in the human brain earlier in development

A team of researchers at Karolinska Institutet and Stockholm University in Sweden found that oligodendrocytes, a cell type in the central nervous system known to be targeted in multiple sclerosis (MS), arise in the human brain earlier in development than mainly thought. The findings were published in the journal Developmental Cell.

Portrait of the researcher Gonçalo Castelo-Branco.
Gonçalo Castelo-Branco. Photo: Hans Ericksson

Oligodendrocytes produce myelin, an insulating layer ensheathing nerve cells, that is under attack in MS. These attacks disrupt information flow in the central nervous system and lead to symptoms such as numbness and walking difficulties, among others.

Studies in mice indicate that oligodendrocytes in the brain are born in several waves in the embryo before birth. However, in humans, while there where some hints that this could be the case, it was mainly thought that oligodendrocytes arise just before birth. “In this study, we established that oligodendrocytes are indeed born very early during human development, indicating that this process is conserved during  evolution,” says Gonçalo Castelo-Branco, professor at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics, Karolinska Institutet, who lead the study, with collaborators at Karolinska Institutet and Stockholm University.

“By analysing the activation profile of genes at a single-cell level at these early stages of human brain development, we could detect the genesis of human oligodendrocytes and characterize in detail the molecular steps that are required for this process” added first author David van Bruggen. “This detailed map of oligodendrocyte birth can give insights on how to generate myelin producing cells, which could be relevant for regenerative-based therapies for MS”.

The study was funded by the European Union Horizon 2020, Swedish Research Council, the Swedish Brain Foundation, the Swedish Cancer Society, Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Swedish Society for Medical Research, the Ming Wai Lau Centre for Reparative Medicine, the Olav Thon Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Foundation and the Strategic Research Programme in Neuroscience (StratNeuro) at Karolinska Institutet.


Developmental landscape of human forebrain at a single-cell level identifies early waves of oligodendrogenesis”, David van Bruggen, Fabio Pohl, Christoffer Mattson Langseth, Petra Kukanja, Hower Lee, Alejandro Mossi Albiach, Mukund Kabbe, Mandy Meijer, Sten Linnarsson, Markus M. Hilscher, Mats Nilsson, Erik Sundström, and Gonçalo Castelo-Branco Developmental Cell 2022, Vol. 57, Page 1-16. DOI: 10.1016/j.devcel.2022.04.016