Scientists have made a new discovery about the function of a certain type of brain cell that could have implications for the way in which neurological conditions such as epilepsy are treated in future.Led by McGill University Health Centre in Canada, the study – published in the journal Science – has helped to improve understanding of cells known as astrocytes, revealing that their properties are far more flexible and modifiable than was previously known.Astrocytes are star-shaped cells that surround brain neurons and neural circuits, acting to protect them from injury and helping them to function properly. This means they play a key role in helping the billions of cells in the brain to communicate properly.In this new study, a dial-like mechanism was found on astrocytes that enables neurons to adjust the cells to ensure they deliver the right kind of support – a process that often becomes altered when the brain is affected by an injury or stroke, or by a disease such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.Since it was previously believed that astrocytes acquired their properties during the development of the brain and were hardwired in their roles, the discovery that they are actually modifiable means they could potentially be tweaked to improve brain function or restore lost abilities caused by disease.The team believes this could have significant implications for not only epilepsy, but also several movement disorders and psychiatric or neurodegenerative diseases.Dr Keith Murai, associate professor of the department of neurology and neurosurgery at McGill University, said: “This is an extraordinary mechanism in the healthy, mature brain that creates diversity of brain cells. Now our goal is to see how this mechanism is affected in different brain diseases and determine if it can be harnessed to protect neurons and ultimately preserve brain function.”Posted by Anne BrownClick here for more articles about brain science including genetics.