Behind our thoughts, our behaviors, and our movements are firing neurons. These foundational brain cells communicate with one another to mediate the many things our brains do via contact points known as synapses. But behind that activity is a brain cell that’s received far less study throughout the history of neuroscience: the astrocyte.

Beatriz T. Ceja Pinkston, a Ph.D. student in the Olsen Lab at Virginia Tech, part of the School of Neuroscience, calls astrocytes the “multitasking workhorse of the brain.”

These cells have complex, sponge-like shapes with thousands of branches from their cell body that allow them to interact with thousands of things at once. They’re involved in nearly every aspect of what keeps the brain going, Ceja Pinkston said, including brain development, maintaining homeostasis, formation of the blood-brain barrier, and all things neurons.

“If we imagine our brain as a garden, neurons are like the beautiful flowers that keep us going,” Ceja Pinkston said. “But the astrocytes are like the soil that is maintaining those flowers, feeding those flowers, and providing all the nutrients and all the richness and goodness to make those flowers bloom.”