Astrocytes: The brain’s’stars’ may function as information regulators.

The star-shaped cells known as astrocytes, which are members of the glial family of cells found in the central nervous system and are thought to act as “brain glue,” help control blood flow and synaptic activity, maintain the health of neurons, and are crucial for breathing. Despite this growing understanding of astrocytes, there is still much to learn about how these cells support neurons and the brain’s information processing.

According to Nathan Smith, MS, Ph., “We think astrocytes can add a new dimension to our understanding of how external and internal information is merged in the brain.”. D. is an associate professor of neuroscience at the University of Rochester’s Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience.

In an opinion piece published in Trends in Neuroscience today, he and other authors from the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Copenhagen emphasize this. The article investigates the role that astrocytes may play in the brain’s capacity to process both internal and external information simultaneously. More study of these cells is required to comprehend their function in the process that enables a person to respond behaviorally appropriately and to be able to store relevant memories that will influence behavior in the future.

“We feel that astrocytes can contribute a new dimension to our understanding of how external and internal information are combined in the brain,”

 Nathan Smith, MS, Ph.D., associate professor of Neuroscience.

Brain-guided information flow
Survival depends on our body’s ability to combine information from the outside world with information from within. These processes may go wrong, leading to the development of behavioral or mental health symptoms. According to Smith and co-authors, there is proof that astrocytes might be crucial to this process. Astrocytes are capable of detecting sensory inputs and receiving signals from neurons at the same time, according to earlier research.

These outside signals may come from different senses, like sight or smell. By altering the calcium (Ca2) signaling that is directed toward neurons in response to this information influx, astrocytes give neurons the best possible information with which to respond to stimuli. The authors postulate that this astrocytic Ca2 signaling may be a fundamental aspect of how neurons communicate and what might transpire if a signal is interfered with.

How astrocytes and neuromodulators, the signals sent between neurons, interact, however, is still largely unknown.

Astrocytes are a frequently ignored class of brain cells in systems neuroscience, according to Smith. In disorders like Alzheimer’s and autism spectrum disorder, which are characterized by disturbed sensory processing, we think dysfunctional astrocytic calcium signaling may play a role.”.

Advancing the future by building on the past.
Astrocytes have been the focus of Smith’s career-long research. Smith, a graduate student at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, was a member of the group that identified astrocytes’ expanded function. Along with absorbing extra potassium, astrocytes may also lower potassium levels in the vicinity of the neuron, which would halt neuronal signaling. This study revealed, for the first time, that astrocytes could affect the actions of neurons in addition to simply tending to them.

“I think we can better understand some neurological diseases once we understand how astrocytes integrate external information from these various internal states.” The future possibility of targeting astrocytes in neurological disease will be advanced by a better understanding of their role, according to Smith.

More complex than previously believed, astrocytes and neurons communicate with one another. There is evidence that astrocytes can detect and respond to change, a process that is crucial for changing behavior and creating memories. According to the authors, learning more about astrocytes will help us understand how the brain works and pave the way for improvements in medical care and treatment.

More information: Rune Nguyen Rasmussen et al, Astrocytes: integrators of arousal state and sensory context, Trends in Neurosciences (2023). DOI: 10.1016/j.tins.2023.03.003

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