Though researchers have so far focused on the neuron as the mainstay of brain development in a growing embryo, researchers now believe glial cells may have an equally important role to play.
A small team of researchers led by scientists from New York University turned to the frequently used model of animal development to study the development of the nervous system, the humble fruit fly.
Specifically, the researchers studied the nervous system of Drosophila in order to see how dividing cells became circuits tasked with mapping the light falling on sensory nerves.
The process would usually be associated solely with cells already known to respond to chemical changes by passing on a signal – aka nerve cells.
The researchers, however, found cells that usually stayed backstage have a rather active role to play in the process.
''The results lead us to revise the often neuro-centric view of brain development to now appreciate the contributions for non-neuronal cells such as glia,'' says researcher Vilaiwan Fernandes from New York University, PTI reports.
Glia take a variety of forms, but they are all dedicated to helping neurons do their all-important job of transmitting waves of electrochemistry.
This support function is performed by half of the total number of cells in the brain.
"Indeed, our study found that fundamental questions in brain development with regard to the timing, identity, and coordination of nerve cell birth can only be understood when the glial contribution is accounted for," said Fernandes, lead author of the study published in the journal Science.
The brain is made up of two broad cell types, nerve cells or neurons and glia, which are non-nerve cells making up over half the volume of the brain.
According to experts, as the brain develops, it must coordinate the increase of neurons in the retina with other neurons in distant regions of the brain.
The coordination of nerve-cell development is achieved through a population of glia, which relay cues from the retina to the brain to make cells in the brain become nerve cells, they say.