Neuroscience : Most people, if they think about the matter at all, probably think of something done by the huge network of specialised, electrically conductive cells called neurons that occupies the upper half of their skulls.

And, as far as it goes, this is true. The 86 billion neurons in a human brain do indeed do much of the cognitive heavy lifting. But not all of it.

Supporting them is a cast of three other varieties of brain cell - microglia, oligodendrocytes and astrocytes - collectively called glial cells [ short for ''neuroglia'', from the Greek for ''nerve glue''].

Until recently, these were neglected by neurology. That has changed. Glial cells are now fashionable topics of study, the results have blown away the idea that they are mere glue.

Microglia are gardeners. They prune links between neurons to keep the network in order. Oligodendrocytes, long dismissed as mere insulators of the electrically conductive fibres called axons via which neurons communicate, have crucial roles in tweaking axonic signals.

And astrocytes, the most interesting of the lot, turn synapses - the junctions where axons meet and transfer signals - into the biological equivalents of transistors, by regulating the flow of information passing through them.

The World Students Society thanks The Economist.


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