In a new study at Tufts University, researchers came across a previously unknown function performed by a cell type that contains almost half of all cells in the brain.
The research findings were published in the journal ‘Nature Neuroscience.’
The scientists say this discovery in mice of a new function by cells known as astrocytes opens a whole new direction for neuroscience research that might one day lead to treatments for many disorders ranging from epilepsy to Alzheimer’s to traumatic brain injury.
It comes down to how astrocytes interact with neurons, which are fundamental cells of the brain and nervous system that receive input from the outside world. Through a complex set of electrical and chemical signaling, neurons transmit information between different brain areas and between the brain and the rest of the nervous system.
In addition to Dulla and lead author Moritz Armbruster, the study’s other authors include Saptarnab Naskar, Mary Sommer, Elliot Kim, and Philip G. Haydon from Tufts University School of Medicine; Jacqueline P. Garcia from the Cell, Molecular and Developmental Biology program at Tufts Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences; and researchers from other institutions.
Dulla describes astrocytes as “making sure everything is copacetic in the brain. If something goes wrong, if there’s an injury or viral infection, they detect it, try to respond, and then protect the brain from insult. What we want to do next is determine how astrocytes change when these insults happen.”
Neuron-to-neuron communication occurs through the release of packets of chemicals called neurotransmitters. Scientists know that Neuron-to-neuron communication helps ensure that neurons stay healthy and active. But the new study reveals that neurons also release potassium ions, which change the electrical activity of the astrocyte and how it controls the neurotransmitters.