Astrocytes are cells in your brain that take care of and support neurons, but what if these cells do something more?

According to new research, astrocytes are “caretaker” cells that play a very important role in the body’s 24-hour internal clock ; also known as circadian rhythms. These cells can actually “lead the tempo of the body’s internal clock and have been shown for the first time to be able to control patterns of daily behaviour in mammals.”  This research can provide findings for disorders that manifest from issues with one’s circadian rhythm – such as sleep disorders and even cancer (“New role”, 2019).

Circadian rhythms aren’t just to help with sleep, they maintain the body’s entire functional clock, activating cells throughout the day that are “controlled by the suprachiasmatic nuclear (SCN), a small brain region in the hypothalamus which acts as the master clock responsible for regulating daily behaviour” (“New role”, 2019).

The added importance of astrocytes was found with microscopic imaging, which discovered that both the astrocytes and neurons of the SCN have their own circadian clocks which interplay off each other. This interplay was discovered when the researchers studied genetically modified mice who had their SCN silenced – it was found that the astrocytes would “step in”, restoring the function of their internal clocks and allowing them to go about their day (“New role”, 2019).

“The discovery that astrocytes can be as effective as neurons in generating and transmitting a circadian timing signal across an animal really surprised us…we knew from previous research that these cells played a role in circadian clocks, but we had no idea they could restart the circadian function of neurons. This adds a totally new and unanticipated dimension to the neurobiology of circadian body clocks,” stated Dr Marco Brancaccio, lead author of the study (“New role”, 2019).

Reference: Medical Research Council. (2019, January 10). New role for brain’s support cells in controlling circadian rhythms. ScienceDaily. Retrieved January 13, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/01/190110141818.htm