"Studies in rodents show that non-neuronal cells are part of information processing," said Dr. Maiken Nedergaard of the University of Rochester Medical Center, who led the research team. "And our study suggests that astrocytes are part of the higher cognitive functioning that defines who we are as humans."
The scientists noted there are 10 times as many astrocytes in the brain than the neurons that send electrical signals.
Medical student Nancy Ann Oberheim, first author of the study, said human astrocytes signals are faster, bigger and more complex than those found in mice and rats.
The researchers discovered new types of astrocytes, and also determined astrocytes use calcium, rather than electrical signals, to communicate with neurons. The research team reported astrocytes send much slower signals that do neurons, but are just as important in the basic working of the brain.
The study that included scientists from New York Medical College and the University of Washington appears in the Journal of Neuroscience.
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