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 Scientists find brain cells that help in breathing
 Updated at: 1105 PST,  Sunday, July 18, 2010
Scientists find brain cells that help in breathing LONDON: Scientists claim to have found a certain kind of cells in the brain that might play a key role in controlling breathing, a discovery which they believe could lead to new treatment for serious respiratory disorders.

In laboratory rats, researchers at the University College London found that the star-shaped cells, known as astrocytes, can sense changes in blood carbon dioxide levels and then signal other brain networks to adjust breathing -- taking in vital oxygen and expelling waste carbon dioxide.

"This research identifies brain astrocytes as previously unrecognised 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," said lead researcher Alexander Gourine.

The researchers believe it could be possible that these brain cells or others like them contribute to disorders associated with respiratory failure such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), LiveScience reported.

However, they said more research is needed to make sure the results hold true for humans as well although rats are considered a good model for studies on the human brain.

Astrocytes belong to a group of brain cells known as glial cells, which until recently were thought to be minor players in the brain, providing structural and nutritional support to neurons that did the heavy lifting.

"It's called neuroscience because it's neuro-centric," Gourine said. "Astrocytes and other glial cells, they were considered to not be as exciting to study previously."

But, during their research, Gourine and his colleagues found that astrocytes directly respond to decreases in blood carbon dioxide levels.

Once activated, astrocytes send out a chemical messenger called ATP, which in turn stimulates other networks in the rats' brain involved in respiration.

It was found that breathing in the rodents increased when astrocytes indicated levels of carbon dioxide were too high -- a reflex to get rid of the extra gas, and decreased when carbon dioxide levels were too low.
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