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Flick of whiskers helps tease out brain's 'shadow' signaling system

f mice as their whiskers were gently pushed about with gentle puffs of air. Whiskers make up one of the most important information-gathering mechanisms that many animals have, used in much the same way that people rely on their hands and eyes to learn about their environment. A large part of a mouse's brain is devoted to processing the information their whiskers send its way ?a change in air current might indicate a nearby predator, for instance, or a certain texture might indicate a yummy bite of cheese nearby. Scientists have found that the way an animal's brain learns information from its whiskers mirrors the way people learn from their senses.

Wang and Nedergaard found that with a puff of air on a whisker, astrocytes become activated ?pumped with calcium ?in the section of the brain that processes sensory input. The chemical step is a sign that the cell has been triggered in some way and is ready to send out a signal itself. While it's been shown before that astrocytes can become activated under extreme conditions in the laboratory, Nedergaard said this is the first time that such activity has been seen in an organism during everyday circumstances.

"This opens the door to whether these cells are part of everyday higher cognitive functioning that defines who we are as humans," she said.

For years astrocytes have been related to the status of helper to the neurons, which rely on astrocytes to bring nutrients and to clean up after them. While scientists have known that neurons fire electrically in spectacular fashion to send signals, it's only recently that the slower chemical signaling network of the more numerous astrocytes has become widely appreciated by scientists.

Wang's work is the latest in a series of papers by Nedergaard and colleagues scuttling the notion that astrocytes are merely support cells for neurons. More than a decade ago Nedergaard discovered that astrocytes send signals to the neurons, and the neurons respond. S
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Source:University of Rochester Medical Center


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