The brain’s neurons tend to get most of the scientific attention, but a set of cells around them called astrocytes – literally, star-shaped cells – are increasingly being viewed as crucial players in guiding a brain to become properly organized.
A new study from Duke and UNC scientists has discovered a crucial protein involved in the communication and coordination between astrocytes as they build synapses. Lacking this molecule, called hepaCAM, astrocytes aren’t as sticky as they should be, and tend to stick to themselves rather than forming connections with their fellow astrocytes.
This finding, in studies on mice with the gene for hepaCAM knocked out of their astrocytes, is an important clue in efforts to understand several brain disorders, including cognitive decline, epilepsy and autism spectrum disorders. The work appears June 24 in the journal Neuron.