In this image of the brain of the transplanted
mice, the human astrocytes appear in green
(credit: University of Rochester Medical Center)

 

Support cells found in human brain make mice smarter

March 8, 2013

Glial cells — a family of cells found in the human central nervous system and, until recently, considered mere “housekeepers” — now appear to be essential to the unique complexity of the human brain.

Scientists reached this conclusion after demonstrating that when transplanted into mice, these human cells could influence communication within the brain, allowing the animals to learn more rapidly.

The study suggests that the evolution of a subset of glia called astrocytes — which are larger and more complex in humans than other species — may have been one of the key events that led to the higher cognitive functions that distinguish us from other species.

“This study indicates that glia are not only essential to neural transmission, but also suggest that the development of human cognition may reflect the evolution of human-specific glial form and function,” said University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) neurologist Steven Goldman, M.D., Ph.D., co-senior author of the study.

“We believe that this is the first demonstration that human glia have unique functional advantages. This finding also provides us with a fundamentally new model to investigate a range of diseases in which these cells may play a role.”

In recent years scientists have begun to understand and appreciate the role that glia cells — and more specifically astrocytes — play in brain function. Researchers at URMC have been pioneers in unlocking the secrets of astrocytes and demonstrating that they not only serve to support the neurons in the brain, but also communicate with neurons and each other.

“The role of the astrocyte is to provide the perfect environment for neural transmission,” said Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., D.M.Sc., co-senior author of the study and director, along with Goldman, of the URMC Center for Translational Neuromedicine. “As the same time, we’ve observed that as these cells have evolved in complexity, size, and diversity — as they have in humans — brain function becomes more and more complex.”

Read more: Support cells found in human brain make mice smarter | KurzweilAI.

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