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Keywords:

  • astrocytes;
  • disease;
  • health;
  • metabolism;
  • neurogenesis;
  • signaling

J. Neurochem. (2012) 121, 4–27.

Abstract

Neuroglial cells define brain homeostasis and mount defense against pathological insults. Astroglia regulate neurogenesis and development of brain circuits. In the adult brain, astrocytes enter into intimate dynamic relationship with neurons, especially at synaptic sites where they functionally form the tripartite synapse. At these sites, astrocytes regulate ion and neurotransmitter homeostasis, metabolically support neurons and monitor synaptic activity; one of the readouts of the latter manifests in astrocytic intracellular Ca2+ signals. This form of astrocytic excitability can lead to release of chemical transmitters via Ca2+-dependent exocytosis. Once in the extracellular space, gliotransmitters can modulate synaptic plasticity and cause changes in behavior. Besides these physiological tasks, astrocytes are fundamental for progression and outcome of neurological diseases. In Alzheimer’s disease, for example, astrocytes may contribute to the etiology of this disorder. Highly lethal glial-derived tumors use signaling trickery to coerce normal brain cells to assist tumor invasiveness. This review not only sheds new light on the brain operation in health and disease, but also points to many unknowns.