"Dogma is slow to change, and one of the dogmas of neuroscience is that astrocytes are support cells that don't do much themselves," said Oberheim. "The view is slow to change, but scientists are coming around. Astrocytes are now acknowledged as active participants in brain function and sensory processing."
The brain's two signaling systems - one composed of neurons, and one of astrocytes - complement each other, Nedergaard said. Neurons send signals extremely quickly over long distances - the hand touches a hot stove, for instance, and the brain detects the danger and moves the hand away, instantly. Astrocytes, in contrast, send slower signals whose function is still being worked out by scientists.
"The brain contains two communication networks using different languages," said Nedergaard, director of the Division of Glial Disease and Therapeutics of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine. "You have a highly sophisticated electrical network embodied in the neurons, which send signals instantaneously. And then you have a much slower network composed of astrocytes whose signals are 10,000 times slower but which might be able to process the information in a more sophisticated manner and retrieve memories.
"There is no other tissue in the body that mixes up two different types of cells so completely as how astrocytes and neurons are interspersed throughout the brain," Nedergaard added. "Both comprise extensive signaling networks. Where those networks interface and how they interact makes the brai
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