After years of debate about whether or not astrocytes, a subtype of brain cells known as glial cells, can signal, researchers finally have an answer: yes, and no. As it turns out, both sides were correct—and incorrect. Over the years, discrepancies in conclusions resulted because the answer changed depending on which type of glial cells were used in the research. Just like the people in whose brains they live, some glial cells are communicative, and some, not so much.
In a paper published last month in Nature, researchers released the findings of their eight-year study, revealing proof that astrocytes can signal. The evidence includes images and genetic data suggesting that the signaling cells, called glutamatergic astrocytes, can do what neurons do, and thus are able to communicate and play more than a supporting role in this brain activity.
This discovery is only a first step, and many important questions remain, not the least of which is why a subset of brain cells uses this function, and others do not.