Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

Once considered mainly 'brain glue,' astrocytes' power revealed

Date:
March 29, 2012
Source:
University of Rochester Medical Center
Summary:
A type of cell plentiful in the brain, long considered mainly the stuff that holds the brain together and oft-overlooked by scientists more interested in flashier cells known as neurons, wields more power in the brain than has been realized, playing a key role in reducing or stopping the electrical signals that are considered brain activity.

Human astrocytes.
Credit: Image courtesy of University of Rochester Medical Center

A type of cell plentiful in the brain, long considered mainly the stuff that holds the brain together and oft-overlooked by scientists more interested in flashier cells known as neurons, wields more power in the brain than has been realized, according to new research published March 29 in Science Signaling.

Related Articles


Neuroscientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center report that astrocytes are crucial for creating the proper environment for our brains to work. The team found that the cells play a key role in reducing or stopping the electrical signals that are considered brain activity, playing an active role in determining when cells called neurons fire and when they don't.

That is a big step forward from what scientists have long considered the role of astrocytes -- to nurture neurons and keep them healthy.

"Astrocytes have long been called housekeeping cells -- tending to neurons, nurturing them, and cleaning up after them," said Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., D.M.Sc., professor of Neurosurgery and leader of the study. "It turns out that they can influence the actions of neurons in ways that have not been realized."

Proper brain function relies on billions of electrical signals -- tiny molecular explosions, really -- happening remarkably in sync. Recalling the face of a loved one, swinging a baseball bat, walking down the street -- all those actions rely on electrical signals passed instantly along our nerves like a molecular hot potato from one brain cell to another.

For that to happen, the molecular brew of chemicals like sodium, calcium and potassium that brain cells reside in must be just right -- and astrocytes help to maintain that balanced environment. For instance, when a neuron sends an impulse, or fires, levels of potassium surrounding the cell jump dramatically, and those levels must come down immediately for the brain to work properly. Scientists have long known that that's a job for astrocytes -- sopping up excess potassium, ending the nerve pulse, and restoring the cells so they can fire again immediately.

In the paper in Science Signaling, Nedergaard's team discovered an expanded role for astrocytes. The team learned that in addition to simply absorbing excess potassium, astrocytes themselves can cause potassium levels around the neuron to drop, putting neuronal signaling to a stop.

"Far from only playing a passive role, astrocytes can initiate the uptake of potassium in a way that affects neuronal activity," said Nedergaard. "It's a simple, yet powerful mechanism for astrocytes to rapidly modulate neuronal activity."

Nedergaard has investigated the secret lives of astrocytes for more than two decades. She has shown how the cells communicate using calcium to signal. Nearly 20 years ago in a paper in Science, she pioneered the idea that glial cells like astrocytes communicate with neurons and affect them. Since then, has been a lot of speculation by other scientists that chemicals call gliotransmitters, such as glutamate and ATP, are key to this process.

In contrast, in the latest research Nedergaard's team found that another signaling system involving potassium is at work. By sucking up potassium, astrocytes quell the firing of neurons, increasing what scientists call "synaptic fidelity." Important brain signals are crisper and clearer because there is less unwanted activity or "chatter" among neurons that should not be firing. Such errant neuronal activity is linked to a plethora of disorders, including epilepsy, schizophrenia, and attention-deficit disorder.

"This gives us a new target for a disease like epilepsy, where signaling among brain cells is not as controlled as it should be," said Nedergaard, whose team is based in the Division of Glia Disease and Therapeutics of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine. of the Department of Neurosurgery

The first authors of the paper are Fushun Wang, Ph.D., research assistant professor of Neurosurgery; and graduate student Nathan Anthony Smith. They did much of the work by using a sophisticated laser-based system to monitor the activity of astrocytes in the living brain of rats and mice. The work by Smith, a graduate student in the University's neuroscience program, was supported by a Kirschstein National Research Service Award from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

Other authors from Rochester include Takumi Fujita, Ph.D., post-doctoral associate; Takahiro Takano, Ph.D., assistant professor; Qiwu Xu, technical associate; and Lane Bekar, Ph.D., formerly research assistant professor, now at the University of Saskatchewan. Also contributing were Akemichi Baba of Hyogo University of Health Sciences in Japan, and Toshio Matsuda of Osaka University in Japan.

Nedergaard notes that the complexity and size of our astrocytes is one of few characteristics that differentiate our brains from rodents. Our astrocytes are bigger, faster, and much more complex in both structure and function. She has found that astrocytes contribute to conditions like stroke, Alzheimer's, epilepsy, and spinal cord injury.

"Astrocytes are integral to the most sophisticated brain processes," she added.

The work was funded by the G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Charitable Foundation and NINDS.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by University of Rochester Medical Center. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. A. Torres, F. Wang, Q. Xu, T. Fujita, R. Dobrowolski, K. Willecke, T. Takano, M. Nedergaard. Extracellular Ca2 Acts as a Mediator of Communication from Neurons to Glia. Science Signaling, 2012; 5 (208): ra8 DOI: 10.1126/scisignal.2002160

Cite This Page:

University of Rochester Medical Center. "Once considered mainly 'brain glue,' astrocytes' power revealed." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 March 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120329170439.htm>.
University of Rochester Medical Center. (2012, March 29). Once considered mainly 'brain glue,' astrocytes' power revealed. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 25, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120329170439.htm
University of Rochester Medical Center. "Once considered mainly 'brain glue,' astrocytes' power revealed." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120329170439.htm (accessed October 25, 2014).

Share This



More Health & Medicine News

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

IKEA Desk Converts From Standing to Sitting With One Button

IKEA Desk Converts From Standing to Sitting With One Button

Buzz60 (Oct. 24, 2014) IKEA is out with a new convertible desk that can convert from a sitting desk to a standing one with just the push of a button. Jen Markham explains. Video provided by Buzz60
Powered by NewsLook.com
Ebola Protective Suits Being Made in China

Ebola Protective Suits Being Made in China

AFP (Oct. 24, 2014) A factory in China is busy making Ebola protective suits for healthcare workers and others fighting the spread of the virus. Duration: 00:38 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
WHO: Millions of Ebola Vaccine Doses by 2015

WHO: Millions of Ebola Vaccine Doses by 2015

AP (Oct. 24, 2014) The World Health Organization said on Friday that millions of doses of two experimental Ebola vaccines could be ready for use in 2015 and five more experimental vaccines would start being tested in March. (Oct. 24) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Doctor in NYC Quarantined With Ebola

Doctor in NYC Quarantined With Ebola

AP (Oct. 24, 2014) An emergency room doctor who recently returned to the city after treating Ebola patients in West Africa has tested positive for the virus. He's quarantined in a hospital. (Oct. 24) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins