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Astrocytes Help Separate Man From Mouse
Date:3/23/2009

t's not the answer.

"It may be that humans have a much higher brain capacity in large part because our astrocytes are more sophisticated and have more complex processing power," added Nedergaard, who spoke last week at a Gordon Research Conference on glial biology. "Studies in rodents show that non-neuronal cells are part of information processing, and our study suggests that astrocytes are part of the higher cognitive functioning that defines who we are as humans."

Astrocytes had long been considered passive support cells, a means to hold the rest of the brain cells together, like glue. Medical students might spend a few minutes pondering the astrocyte before moving on to their flashy counterparts, the neurons that fire the electrical signals crucial to pretty much everything we do. It's the electrical activity of neurons that constitutes what most scientists have considered to be brain activity, and it's the neurons that are the target of every currently available drug aimed at brain cells. If astrocytes were important, scientists thought, it was most likely because they help create a healthy environment for the neurons.

It turns out that astrocytes, which are 10 times as plentiful as neurons, had been pushed to the boundaries of neuroscience because of a gap in the tools used to study the brain. Scientists measure signaling among brain cells mainly by looking at electrical activity. But astrocytes don't fire in the same way as neurons, and so conventional techniques don't record their activity. So when scientists "listened" with conventional techniques, they witnessed no activity.

Rather than realizing their tools were incomplete, scientists assumed that astrocytes were silent.

So Nedergaard devised a new way to "listen" for astrocyte activity, developing a sophisticated laser system to look at their activity by measuring the amount of calcium inside the cells. Her team has disco
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SOURCE University of Rochester Medical Center
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