Rochester Science

U of R research into forgotten brain cells may shed light on the inner workings of epilepsy, schizophrenia

People with ADHD may have a new part of their brain to blame. Neurons used to take much of the blame for mental disorders. Researchers believed that when neurons stopped doing their job mental disorders occurred. But now it seems there may be another cell in the mix – astrocytes.

Researchers used to consider astrocytes the lowly housekeepers of the brain. But now they’re finding that astrocytes are a much more crucial part to brain activity, may perhaps even play a factor in the development of mental disorders including epilepsy, schizophrenia, and ADD.

Maiken Nedergaard, a neurosurgery professor at the University of Rochester, and colleagues ran a study exploring astrocytes role in the brain. Nedergaard’s team used advanced lasers to look at astrocytes in rats and mice.

Researchers used to think that astrocytes simply absorbed Potassium so that the neurons could do their job. A neuron’s main job is communicating through electrochemical signals. Astrocytes had long been considered “brain glue,” whose main component was giving the brain structure.

Now astrocytes can be thought of more as moms. They clean and make sure neurons are doing everything they need to. It is when astrocytes do not do their job properly that mental disorders can develop. When an astrocyte isn’t doing it’s job of absorbing potassium, neurons start to fire erratically. When neurons fire erratically, they cannot communicate effectively with the rest of the brain.

Knowing that astrocytes are a cause behind some mental disorders, can help researchers develop better treatment. When a definitive biological cause is behind a disorder medicines can be developed to treat it.