A recent study by researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center has revealed new properties of human brain cells known as astrocytes, using them to boost learning ability in mice. Scientists injected the cells — previously seen as relatively unimportant helpers to more central neurons — into the brains of a group of mice, then tested the animals against a control group given extra cells from their own species. After a six-month maturation period, those injected with human cells were able to learn their way around a maze significantly faster, and were also able to quickly associate a distinctive sound with an electric shock.

Published in the journal Cell Stem Cell earlier this month, the study has the potential to change the scientific consensus on astrocytes, suggesting that they may be one of the key factors in helping humans think like we do. "We believe that this is the first demonstration that human glia [precursors to astrocytes] have unique functional advantages," says co-senior author Steven Goldman in a statement. "This finding also provides us with a fundamentally new model to investigate a range of diseases in which these cells may play a role."