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Brain 'stars' help breathing

Cells originally believed to be no more than support for neurons have been getting a second-look lately, and a recent study suggests they may be critical to a fundamental bodily function: breathing. The finding, published online today (July 15) by linkurl:Science,;http://www.sciencemag.org/ further expands scientists' vague understanding how astrocytes -- glial cells in the brain named for their star-shape -- function in the brain, and offers a new way to investigate disorders associated with r

By | July 15, 2010

Cells originally believed to be no more than support for neurons have been getting a second-look lately, and a recent study suggests they may be critical to a fundamental bodily function: breathing. The finding, published online today (July 15) by linkurl:Science,;http://www.sciencemag.org/ further expands scientists' vague understanding how astrocytes -- glial cells in the brain named for their star-shape -- function in the brain, and offers a new way to investigate disorders associated with respiratory failure, such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Astrocytes
Karin Pierre, Institut de Physiologie,
UNIL, Lausanne

Wikimedia Commons
"This shows us that we are far from understanding the complexity of the brain," said linkurl:Cendra Agulhon,;http://www.med.unc.edu/pharm/news/faculty-news/dr-ken-mccarthys-lab-publishes-in-science a researcher at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who recently published a linkurl:controversial paper;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57202/ suggesting astrocytes don't play a role in neural transmission. "The more we learn, the more we add layers of complexity." Glial cells outnumber neurons by ten to one in the brain, but for a long time, they were considered simply the glue ('glial' means 'glue' in Greek) that holds the brain together. In recent years, however, scientists have postulated many other functions for these mysterious cells: sculpting neural circuits linkurl:during development,;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/22128/ assisting with linkurl:brain microcirculation,;http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/20888/ and, recently, aiding linkurl:memory formation.;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/56270/ Interested in understanding the central nervous control of breathing, linkurl:Alexander Gourine;http://www.ucl.ac.uk/npp/agourine.html at the University College London and collaborators at the linkurl:University of Bristol;http://www.bristol.ac.uk/neuroscience/research/groups/pidetails/23 surmised that astrocytes might be involved in sensing chemical composition of the blood because they are wrapped around major blood vessels entering the brain. "So they would be first to see changes in blood pH and levels of carbon dioxide," said Gourine. However, the lack of tools to monitor or control astrocytes' activity in a living brain delayed a test of that hypothesis. Until recently. Unlike neurons, which are electrically excitable, astrocytes react to changes in calcium concentrations. To monitor astrocytes's activity, Gourine and colleagues used a gene transfer technique to express a calcium sensor in astrocytes located in the medulla oblongata of rats, an area known to contain respiratory chemosensors. The cells "sensed" changes in pH, a measure of how much carbon dioxide is in the blood, by rapidly increasing intracellular calcium levels. When these responses were simulated in live animals, the astrocytes released ATP, which stimulated local neurons and increased breathing in rats. The neurons and astrocytes seem to work like partners to regulate breathing, said Agulhon. "It's like a team," she added. "Partnerships of cell [types] in the brain may be working to modulate and maintain physiological mechanisms." It might be interesting to examine the role of astrocytes in breathing conditions like apnea, a sleep breathing disorder, said Agulhon. "Maybe astrocytes are good targets," she added. The new knowledge could also be relevant for conditions associated with sudden respiratory failure, like SIDS. "We can only speculate at this stage," said Gourine. "Glial dysfunction may be contributing to respiratory failure, but at the moment we have no evidence." The next step is to find a way to inhibit astrocytes in vivo, said Gourine. Then, researchers will be able to test the numerous hypotheses for the functions of astrocytes in the brain. It is likely astrocytes in various regions of the brain serve different functions, said Agulhon, just as many different types of neurons do many different jobs. "Depending on where they are and what kind of neurons they are surrounded by, they will function differently," she added. "We are just starting to understand how important astrocytes can be." A.V. Gourine et al. "Astrocytes control breathing through pH-dependent release of ATP," Science, published online July 15, 2010, doi:10.1126/science.1190721.
**__Related stories:__***linkurl:Brain cells' new role defunct?;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/57202/
[4th March 2010]*linkurl:Glial cells aid memory formation;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/56270/
[13th January 2010]*linkurl:New role for supporting brain cells;http://www.the-scientist.com/blog/display/54758/
[19th June 2008]
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Comments

Avatar of: Nirmal Mishra

Nirmal Mishra

Posts: 22

July 18, 2010

Glial cells surround the neurons and provide ATP to the latter. This means that glial cells are provide the energy currency to the neurons they surround. Deficient supply of oxygen will stifle glial cells and as a result adjoining neurons will get less ATP.\nDependence of neurons on extrinsic supply of ATP will increase if there is fusion of mitochondria in neurons. The rate of fusion of mitochondria in glial cells and neurons and their proportionality may be an interesting thing to examine. The diseases associated with neurons of the brain depend upon which area they belong to. Susceptibility of glial cells to oxygen may be a general phenomenon, not only related to only a few areas of the brain. \n\n

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