The brain’s most abundant cells may play a very big role in what causes certain neurological disorders. Researchers from the Institute of Biomedical Sciences at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro published their findings in the journal Glia, which sheds some light on how the mouse and human brain cells cause disorders.

Star-shaped brain cells, named astrocytes, are abundant throughout the brain and regulate how messages in the brain travel through way of synapse. Synapses are a magnificently important mechanism that allows an electric or chemical signal to pass from one brain cell to the next. Without our chemical synapse, we wouldn’t be able to learn, create memories, use our perception and cognition, and balance between excitatory and inhibitory functions.

Excitatory signals are responsible for stimulating the brain, while the inhibitory signals are used to calm the brain, balance mood, and deplete excitatory signals when they’re over activated. They control mood, sleep, weight, stomach digestion, and a number of other functions. Up until now, researchers weren’t sure exactly how the mechanisms controlling them worked.

Synapses can change their shape or function in seconds or at a slower pace over a lifetime and when something goes wrong, the malfunctions have been known to cause autism, epilepsy, substance abuse, and depression. Astrocytes have now been shown to play a role in how the inhibitory synapses form, which is key to regulating and balancing the brain.

The Transforming Growth Factor Beta 1 (TGF β1) is produced by astrocytes and researchers found its crucial role in the development of synapses inside test tubes, and then in living brain cells of both mice and men. "Our study is the first to associate this complex pathway of molecules, of which TGF β1 seems to be a key player, to astrocytes' ability to modulate inhibitory synapses," the study’s lead author Dr. Flávia Gomes said in a press release.

The molecule secreted by the star-shaped cells is essential for the nervous system development, repair, and other normal brain functions. Once researchers were able to trigger memory formation molecules through the synapses, they realized astrocytes play a much larger role than they had previously thought.

Further investigation needs to be done in order to find out if they can pinpoint how neurological disorders initially develop, because by knowing the key mechanisms, it may help new drug development and treatments in the future.

Source: Gomes F, et al. Astrocyte Transforming Growth Factor Beta 1 Promotes Inhibitory Synapse Formation Via Cam Kinase II Signaling. Glia. 2014.