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April 19, 2023


Neuroscientists at UC San Francisco have discovered a brain circuit involving astrocytes, a lesser-known cell type called that plays a role in modulating attention and perception.

Credit: U.S. National Science Foundation

If you've ever been overwhelmed, you may have experienced a moment where you were frozen, unable to take in information. What happens in the brain when we're feeling this way? We'll explore new insights into neural activity in the U.S. National Science Foundation's "Discovery Files."

Awareness of the brain's electrical activity patterns is crucial for understanding perception, attention, and behavior. When the brain experiences a heavier period of stimuli, neurons become desynchronized by the chemicals released in the brain. Supported in part by NSF, scientists at UC San Francisco have discovered a new link in this brain activity to astrocytes, non-neuronal cells that are abundant in the brain.

Historically thought to be support cells for neurons, astrocytes have been shown to have other important functions, including critical roles in the generation of sleep. This new research revealed a dynamic response to the chemical norepinephrine in astrocyte receptors, showing astrocytes acting as a feedback mechanism when the brain is in a state of heightened stimulation, allowing the brain to relax.

The specific relationships between astrocytes and the neurons around them provide valuable insights to the brain mechanisms regulating attention, arousal, and perception, and may hold a key to treating attention disorders such as ADHD or neurologic conditions like Alzheimer's disease.

To hear more science and engineering news, including the researchers making it, subscribe to "NSF's Discovery Files" podcast.

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