Since its inception, neuroscience has focused on neurons as the single most relevant cellular component of the nervous system for understanding its inner workings. Yet, parts of the mammalian brain are only comprised of 10-20% of neurons. Our research explores the role played by the remaining 80-90% of “non-neuronal” cells, called glial cells, in brain function.
A central goal of cellular neuroscience is to understand how the different cells of the central nervous system function together to process, integrate, store, and use information that allows cognition and behavior. While neurons are exquisitely equipped to receive and transmit information in the millisecond time scale, the rest of the mammalian brain is made of glial cells that process information over a much slower time scale. In particular, astrocytes influence synaptic properties by releasing signaling molecules known as gliotransmitters, but the time frame of such signaling is unfitted to respond to the millisecond-operated flow of neuronal information. This is a major drawback in our current conceptualization of the role of astrocytes in brain circuits. This is, however, highly adequate in the context of brain states that involve slow and long-lasting biochemical changes in the brain. Therefore, we are interested in understanding the role of astrocytes in brain function from the perspective of brain states.