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Star-Shaped Brain Cells Make Scans Possible
Date:6/19/2008

Astrocytes called missing link between neurons, blood vessels, researchers say

THURSDAY, June 19 (HealthDay News) -- Star-shaped brain cells called astrocytes play a key role in allowing experts to see the many reds, oranges, yellows and blues on brain scans, according to a report by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Astrocytes, previously thought of as minor players in brain activity, receive signals directly from neurons and provide their own neuron-like responses to directly regulate blood flow. The colors seen on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and positron emission tomography (PET), which provide neuroscientists with a map of the brain at work, represent blood flow and volume responding to neural activity.

"Why blood flow is linked to neuronal activity has been a mystery," study co-author Mriganka Sur, head of the department of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, said in a prepared statement. "Previously, people have argued that the fMRI signal reports local field potentials or waves of incoming electrical activity, but neurons do not connect directly to blood vessels. A causal link between neuronal activity and blood flow has never been shown."

This finding, published in the June 20 issue of Science, shows astrocytes to be the missing link between neurons and blood vessels, he said.

Astrocytes are a common type of glia, one of the two main cell types in the brain. Neurons in the brain are outnumbered nine to one by glia. Astrocytes -- the most common type of glia -- extend their branching tendrils both around synapses -- through which neurons communicate -- and along blood vessels, the researchers said.

Contrary to previous thought, the new report finds that astrocytes influence complex neuronal computations such as the duration and selectivity of brain cell responses to stimuli. Since their chemical signals had rendered them invisible to
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