Astrocytes, it was long believed, were little more than the scaffolding of the brain—they provided a support structure for the stars of the show, the neurons. But a study out in this week’s Science is the latest to suggest that this is far from the whole story. The study says that astrocytes (whose “astro” name come from their star-shape) may in fact play a critical role in the process of breathing.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell — the most common type of brain cell, and far more abundant than neurons. “Historically, glial cells were only thought to ‘glue’ the brain together, providing neuronal structure and nutritional support but not more,” explains physiologist Alexander Gourine of University College London, one of the authors of the study. “This old dogma is now changing dramatically; a few recent studies have shown that astrocytes can actually help neurons to process information” [Nature].
Gourine’s team peeked into the brains of rats to figure out the connection between astrocytes and breathing. In humans and in rodents, the level of carbon dioxide in the blood rises after physical activity. The brain has to adjust to this, setting the lungs breathing harder to expel that CO2.