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Keywords:

  • astrocytes;
  • evolution;
  • human;
  • learning and memory;
  • transplantation

What is the biological basis for human cognition? Our understanding why human brains make us smarter than other animals is still in its infancy. In recent years, astrocytes have been shown to be indispensable for neuronal survival, growth, synapse formation, and synapse function. Now, in a new study from Maiken Nedergaard and Steven Goldman's groups (Han et al., 2013), human glia progenitor cells have been transplanted into mouse forebrains. These progenitors survived, migrated widely, and gave rise to astrocytes that displayed the characteristics of human astrocytes in the rodent host brains. Strikingly, the mice with transplanted human cells displayed improved long term potentiation (LTP) and learning, suggesting the potential importance of human astrocytes in the unique cognitive abilities of human brains. This landmark paper is an important first step toward future investigations of whether and how human astrocytes play a role in distinguishing the cognitive abilities of humans from those of other animals.