U.S. scientists say by blowing gentle puffs of air onto a mouse’s whiskers and watching how its brain reacts they are discovering how human brains work.

The work is the latest in a growing body of evidence that star-shaped brain cells known as astrocytes are essential cells.

Dr. Maiken Nedergaard, a University of Rochester neurosurgery professor, says astrocytes were long believed to simply nourish other cells and clean up their wastes. She says her team has found they are central to diseases such as epilepsy, spinal cord injury and perhaps Alzheimer’s disease.

For decades scientists have studied the signaling activity of the brain’s the neurons. But astrocytes don’t fire in the same manner as neurons, so many scientists viewed that silence as evidence astrocytes weren’t communicating much, assuming astrocytes — 10 times as plentiful as neurons — don’t comprise an important signaling network.

But Nedergaard’s team devised a new way to listen for astrocyte activity and now have brought the once-obscure astrocyte and its signaling capability into prominence.

The work will appear in the June issue of Nature Neuroscience and is available online.

Mouse Whiskers

A mouse has movable whiskers on each side of its nose. Whiskers are more than twice as thick as ordinary hairs. Whisker roots are deeper than hair roots. Richly supplied with nerve endings, whiskers give mice information about air movements, air pressure, food and anything they touch. Whiskers are extremely sensitive because they are closely connected to the nervous system.

The scientific word for whiskers is vibrissae. Vibrissae are receptive to vibrations in air currents. Whiskers vibrate as the air moves. Mice get messages from these vibrations to sense the presence, size, and shape of anything without seeing or touching it. Mice seem to be moving their whiskers most of the time. Mice have poor eye sight so their whiskers help to protect them.