For two centuries, scientists studying the brain focused on neurons and largely ignored neuroglia: a group of cell types that make up half our brain and spinal cord. Indeed, glial cells were considered little more than brain glue. But it’s now clear that they play an active role in brain function. Take astrocytes, for example (pictured). We now know that these cells, whose thousands of thread-like tendrils wrap around the junctions between neurons, can influence neural signaling. Researchers have also begun to explore whether astrocytes might explain why humans are more intelligent than other animals. One group showed that mice that received transplants of human astrocytes learned much more quickly than normal mice, suggesting that there may be something special about the human astrocyte (pictured right) – which is larger than the mouse version (left) – that contributes to the advanced computational abilities of the human brain.
BPoD stands for Biomedical Picture of the Day. Managed by the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences the website aims to engage everyone, young and old, in the wonders of biomedicine. Images are kindly provided for inclusion on this website through the generosity of scientists across the globe.
BPoD is also available in Catalan at www.bpod.cat with translations by the University of Valencia.