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SHHH, Our Cells are Trying to Talk

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Stem cell diagram illustrates a human fetus st...

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The University of Utah has an excellent description of how our cells communicate both within and between each other. This communication starts with a stem cell and causes each cell to modify itself into a type of cell (e.g. blood, skin, liver, heart). Once a cell becomes a type like our nervous system all later communication and changes are within the constraints of those already made. Nervous system cells don’t communicate like blood cells. Our heart cells don’t suddenly become a cuticle cell and start growing fingernails. These epigenetic switches become permanent and influence the remaining life of the cell and its ancestors. Other epigenetic chatter changes a cell dynamically and can be adjusted to react to environmental changes. Hormones get released by one part of the body and can influence cells in another part. This chatter makes us who we are. It causes us first to be mammals, then humans, and then a unique individual.

Our Epigenome Learns

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Recreated :File:Neuron-no labels2.png in Inksc...

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As epigenetics change which genes are turned ON/OFF, it learns from previous decisions. Epigenetics can be controlled or influenced by the environment but it is also a part of who we are. Each type of cell in our bodies has the same DNA but their epigenetics is different. This allows different cells to do different tasks for the good of the body. If we look at a brain neuron, it starts life-like all cells as a Stem Cell. Epigenetics turns ON/OFF switches that tell the Stem Cell to become a nervous system cell. Now it is specialized and can become one of many parts of our nervous system. Let’s say that more epigenetic switches are thrown that causes this generic nervous system cell to become a spinal cord cell (more
specialization). Now switches are turned OFF to prevent the formation of Glial Cells, sometimes called neuroglia or simply glia. Glia cells cannot become neuron cells.  Later more switches are thrown that turn the spinal cord cell into a neuron cell. Neurons are highly specific and sophisticated cells in our brains. Now epigenetics throws more switches ON/OFF to cause the neuron cell to grow an axon. Axons are arms that can connect one neuron to others. Finally switches are thrown that tell the axon to connect to another axon. The University of Utah depicts this example on their website.