A type of brain cell thought to be responsible for supporting other cells may have a previously unsuspected role in controlling breathing.

Star-shaped cells called astrocytes, found in the brain and spinal cord, can ‘sense’ changes in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood and stimulate neurons to regulate respiration, according to a study published online in Science today1. The research may shed some light on the role of astrocytes in certain respiratory illnesses, such as cot death, which are not well understood.

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.”

“The most important aspect of this study is that it will significantly change ideas about how breathing is controlled,” says David Attwell, a neuroscientist at University College London, who was not involved in the study

Jegarakshagan Gokul

Jegarakshagan R. Gokul

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