Astrocytes, so far considered as performing no particular function in the human brain, has suddenly emerged the star performer with researchers finding that it actually controls a mighty important function like regular breathing.

Star shaped cells found in the brain have been found playing some vital functions such as controlling breathing, contradicting to the long- held belief that they are inert cells, say researchers from University College London.

Astrocytes have been known as cells that connect the surrounding nerve cells or neurons in the brain. They offer biochemical support of endothelial cells which form the blood-brain barrier, provision of nutrients to the nervous tissue, maintenance of extracellular ion balance.

They also have a role in the repair and scarring process of the brain and spinal cord following traumatic injuries.

The researchers used the theory on rats with the help of transfer of genes that allowed them to see how astrocytes were used to control breathing and other allied activities by using only light. They found that astrocytes play very important role in regulating the breathing of rodents.

Astrocytes are now being considered as one of the most important elements of brain, sensing the composition of blood and taking part in the regulatory reflexes. These star-shaped cells monitor levels of carbon dioxide in the blood and activate the brain's respiratory networks to increase a person's breathing to match metabolism and activity, researchers say.

"This research identifies brain astrocytes as previously unrecognized 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," says Alexander Gourine of University College London, who was part of the study.

However, the study is yet to explore other functions that Astrocytes may perform in the co-ordination of the brain activity are yet. The research team said more studies were required to arrive at the conclusion that the process isolated in rats gets repeated in human brain too.

The research, published in the online edition of Science Journal, may help scientists figure out the intricacies behind conditions associated with respiratory failure such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.