To test their theory, the group used a virus carrying tetanus toxin to disable the release of chemicals released selectively from astrocytes, effectively eliminating the cells' ability to communicate with neighboring cells. Neurons were unaffected by the toxin.
After adding a chemical to trigger gamma waves in the animals' brains, the researchers found that brain tissue with disabled astrocytes produced shorter gamma waves than in tissue containing healthy cells. And, after adding three genes that would allow the researchers to selectively turn on and off the tetanus toxin in astrocytes at will, they found that gamma waves were dampened in mice whose astrocytes were blocked from signaling. Turning off the toxin reversed this effect.
The mice with the modified astrocytes seemed perfectly healthy. But after several cognitive tests, the researchers found that they failed in one major area: novel object recognition. As expected, healthy mouse spent more time with a new item placed in its environment than it did with familiar items. In contrast, the group's new mutant mouse treated all objects the same.
"That turned out to be a spectacular result in the sense that novel object recognition memory was not just impaired, it was goneas if we were deleting this one form of memory, leaving others intact," Sejnowski says.
The results were surprising, in part because astrocytes operate on a seconds- or longer timescale whereas neurons signal far faster, on the millisecond scale. Because of that slower speed, no one suspected astrocytes were involved in the high-speed brain activity needed to make quick decisions.
"What I thought quite unique was the idea that astrocytes, traditionally considered only guardians and supporters of neurons and other cells, are also involved in the processing of information and in other cognitive behavior," says Verma, a professor in the Laboratory of Genetics
|Contact: Chris Emery|