Star shaped brain cells, Astrocytes, which were previously thought to act only as the 'glue' between neurons, have a central role in the regulation of breathing, a new study has found.
The finding provides a new dimension for research into fundamental principles of brain organization and function and may be relevant for understanding causes of devastating conditions associated with respiratory failure such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
The scientists have found that brain astrocytes are able to sense the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood.
They then activate brain neuronal respiratory networks to increase our breathing in accord with prevailing metabolism and activity.
Astrocytes are a subtype of a group of brain cells known as glia (which means 'glue' in Greek).
Astrocytes have been found to have a unique ability to 'taste' the composition of arterial blood entering the brain by sensing increases in arterial levels of carbon dioxide.
When activated they release a chemical messenger called ATP that stimulates brain respiratory centres to increase our breathing in order for extra carbon dioxide to be removed from the blood and exhaled.
Dr Alexander Gourineof UCL said: "This research identifies brain astrocytes as previously unrecognized crucial elements of the brain circuits controlling fundamental bodily functions vital for life, such as breathing, and indicates that they are indeed the real stars of the brain."
"This basic science information has to be used rapidly in order to determine whether glial dysfunction contributes to serious disorders of central control of breathing underlying Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and/or congenital central hypoventilation syndrome (Ondine's curse).
"If this hypothesis is correct astrocytes may be considered as potential targets for therapy in preventing respiratory failure," he added.
The findings were published in the Science Express.