William ‘Bill’ Richardson studies the development and function of cells called oligodendrocytes in the central nervous system. Oligodendrocytes produce myelin to insulate nerve axons, allowing action potentials (electrical impulses) to travel 10–100 times faster through the brain and spinal cord than would otherwise be possible.
Bill showed that, in the foetus, oligodendrocytes develop from the same stem cells as motor neurons, which control muscle contractions. This suggests that oligodendrocytes might have co-evolved with motor neurons to facilitate rapid movement — escape from predators, for example. However, during subsequent evolution, oligodendrocytes have been co-opted into many neural circuits in addition to those involved in motor control, dramatically increasing the brain's computational power.
Recently, Bill showed that oligodendrocytes continue to form throughout young adulthood, when they are used to insulate circuits that are newly activated while learning new skills such as juggling, playing the piano or learning a second language. He has received several honours for his work, including election as a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences.
Professor of Biology and Director, Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research, University College London (UCL)
Learning and memory,