A type of brain cell formerly known for its supporting role has landed a glamorous new job. Astrocytes, a type of glial cell known to feed, clean and guide the growth of their flashier nerve cell neighbors, also help nerve cells send electrical transmissions, scientists report in the Aug. 5 Journal of Neuroscience.
The results are the latest in scientists’ efforts to uncover the mysterious and important ways in which cells other than nerve cells keep the nervous system humming.
Astrocytes deliver nutrients to nerve cells, flush waste out of the brain (SN: 9/22/12) and even help control appetite (SN: 6/28/14). The latest study suggests that these star-shaped cells also help electrical messages move along certain nerve cells’ message-sending axons, a job already attributed to other glial cells called oligodendrocytes and Schwann cells.
Courtney Sobieski of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and colleagues grew individual rat nerve cells in a single dish that contained patches of astrocytes. Some nerve cells grew on the patches; others did not. The nerve cells deprived of astrocyte contact showed signs of sluggishness. The researchers think that astrocytes guide nerve cell growth in a way that enables the nerve cells to later fire off quick and precise messages. It’s not clear how the astrocytes do that, but the results suggest that proximity is the key: Astrocytes needed to be close to the nerve cell to help messages move.