Our Brain’s Mysterious Glial Cells
New experiments with the brain’s glial cells have shed light on some of the most mysterious aspects of the mind. Glial cells make up nearly 90 percent of cells in the brain.
Until the last 20 years, brain scientists believed neurons communicated to each other, represented our thoughts, and that glia represented the cement holding the brain together. They were considered to be mere insulators for neurons.
But recently scientists have begun to focus on a particular type of glial cell – astrocytes — that are very abundant in the cortex. Interestingly, we humans have the most, and the biggest, astrocytes in our cortex.
Scientists have discovered that astrocytes are the adult stem cell in the brain. They also communicate among themselves via calcium waves, and are capable of sending information to neurons. They also control blood flow to important regions of activity in the brain.
Harvard University’s Stephen W. Kuffler was the first to discover that astrocytes exhibit an electrical potential, much like neurons. Since then many researchers have completed experiments on the ability of glial cells to communicate with neurons, and have discovered that glial cells respond to and release neuro transmitters just like neurons.
Astrocytes monitor neurons and can induce neurons to fire, and therefore modulate neuron behavior. Neuronal activity without astrocyte processing is a simple reflex — anything more complicated might require astrocyte intervention. This could mean that the calcium waves created by astrocytes are our thinking mind.
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posted by Jill Ammon-Wexler