Astrocytes: More than just glue

August 7, 2012, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
Glial cells (green) prevent a damaging, rhythmic build up of electrical activity in the nerve cells (upper curve): Activated glial cells cause the activity pattern to remain more even (lower curve; Image: Kirsch/University of Freiburg)

Epileptic fits are like thunderstorms raging in the brain: Nerve cells excite each other in an uncontrolled way so that strong, rhythmic electrical discharges sweep over whole brain regions. In the wake of such a seizure, the nerve cells are severely affected, and permanent damage is possible. The glia, a class of cells that surround the neurons in the brain, was long suspected to contribute to the damaging effects of epilepsy. Quite the opposite is the case, as the team of Prof. Dr. Carola Haas from the Bernstein Center and Dr. Matthias Kirsch from the Institute of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the University of Freiburg shows for the first time.

In the journal , the scientists report the beneficial effects of so-called astrocytes, a certain type of . They get their name from the Greek word for glue, as it was long thought that these cells simply hold the nerve cells together and provided them with nutrients. In the case of epilepsy, the prevalent opinion was that their reaction to a seizure would actually damage the brain. The researchers from Freiburg disagree. In fact, they say, astrocytes help to reduce long-term damage brought upon by epileptic fits.

The team discovered the positive effects of astrocytes in mice, in which epileptic states can be selectively triggered. If the scientists injected mice with a specific protein to activate the astrocytes prior to an epilepsy-inducing insult, fewer nerve cells died in the wake of the seizure. Other that would usually occur in the brain were likewise significantly reduced. The astrocytes’ protective effect lasted for many days after their activation. When the researchers measured the rodents’ brain activity, they likewise found fewer signs that are typical for a brain suffering from epilepsy. However, the authors report that the astrocytes had to be already activated before seizures were elicited. Activating them afterwards, on the other hand, did not lead to a protective effect.

Further studies will have to demonstrate that astrocytes have this protective influence all over the brain. According to Haas, who is also a member of Freiburg’s new cluster of excellence BrainLinks-BrainTools, their findings suggest that a timely activation of astrocytes could offer an effective protection from long-term damage to the brain.

Explore further: Control by the matrix: Researchers decipher the role of proteins in the cell environment

More information: Matthias Bechstein, Ute Häussler, Matthias Neef, Hans-Dieter Hofmann, Matthias Kirsch, Carola A. Haas (2012) CNTF-mediated preactivation of astrocytes attenuates neuronal damage and epileptiform activity in experimental epilepsy. Experimental Neurology 236 (1), 141-150. www.sciencedirect.com/science/ … ii/S0014488612001616

Related Stories

Control by the matrix: Researchers decipher the role of proteins in the cell environment

December 12, 2011
How astrocytes, certain cells of the nervous system, are generated was largely unknown up to now. Bochum's researchers have now investigated what influence the cell environment, known as the extracellular matrix, has on this ...

Recommended for you

New neuron-like cells allow investigation into synthesis of vital cellular components

January 22, 2018
Neuron-like cells created from a readily available cell line have allowed researchers to investigate how the human brain makes a metabolic building block essential for the survival of all living organisms. A team led by researchers ...

Finding unravels nature of cognitive inflexibility in fragile X syndrome

January 22, 2018
Mice with the genetic defect that causes fragile X syndrome (FXS) learn and remember normally, but show an inability to learn new information that contradicts what they initially learned, shows a new study by a team of neuroscientists. ...

Epilepsy linked to brain volume and thickness differences

January 22, 2018
Epilepsy is associated with thickness and volume differences in the grey matter of several brain regions, according to new research led by UCL and the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Research reveals atomic-level changes in ALS-linked protein

January 18, 2018
For the first time, researchers have described atom-by-atom changes in a family of proteins linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a group of brain disorders known as frontotemporal dementia and degenerative diseases ...

Fragile X finding shows normal neurons that interact poorly

January 18, 2018
Neurons in mice afflicted with the genetic defect that causes Fragile X syndrome (FXS) appear similar to those in healthy mice, but these neurons fail to interact normally, resulting in the long-known cognitive impairments, ...

How your brain remembers what you had for dinner last night

January 17, 2018
Confirming earlier computational models, researchers at University of California San Diego and UC San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues in Arizona and Louisiana, report that episodic memories are encoded in the hippocampus ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.