Scientists find brain cells that help in breathing

Scientists claim to have found a certain kind of cells in the brain that might play a key role in controlling breathing.

Last Updated: Jul 16, 2010, 21:35 PM IST

Washington: 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 tu
rn 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.

Earlier research has suggested that abnormalities in
the brain stem or an inappropriate response to low blood
oxygen levels could be behind SIDS.

Now, researchers said the finding could lead to new
research on glial cells and better treatment for SIDS.

"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." Gourine said.

"If this hypothesis is correct astrocytes may be
considered as potential targets for therapy in preventing
respiratory failure".

The study, published online in the journal Science,
was funded by the Wellcome Trust and the British Heart
Foundation.

PTI