New research from two Duke University labs in the departments of anesthesiology and cell biology finds that astrocytes and their unique architecture play a significant role in regulating the development and function of synapses in the brain. The manuscript, titled “Astrocytic neuroligins control astrocyte morphogenesis and synaptogenesis,” was published in the November 9, 2017 issue of Nature and featured as the journal’s cover story. Duke Anesthesiology authors include Dr. Ru-Rong Ji, chief of pain research, Dr. Yong-Ho Kim and Di Liu.
An astrocyte (blue) grown in a dish with neurons forms an intricate, star-shaped structure. Neurons’ synaptic proteins appear in green and purple. Overlapping proteins represent the locations of synapses. Credit: Jeff Stogsdill, Duke University
According to the article, titled “Star-Shaped Brain Cells Orchestrate Neural Connections,” published by Duke TODAY and featured on Duke University’s Med School Blog, this study highlights that the dysfunction of intricate astrocyte cells may underlie devastating diseases such as autism, schizophrenia and epilepsy. The article goes on to state that the Duke team identified a family of three proteins that control the web-like structure of each astrocyte as it grows and encases neuronal structures such as synapses. Switching off one of these proteins not only limited the complexity of the astrocytes, but also altered the nature of the synapses between neurons they touched, shifting the delicate balance between excitatory and inhibitory neural connections.
Dr. Cagla Eroglu, co-author and associate professor of cell biology and neurology at Duke adds that, “We found that astrocytes’ shape and their interactions with synapses are fundamentally important for brain function and can be linked to diseases in a way that people have neglected until now.”
A 3-D-printed model of a single astrocyte from a mouse brain shows the sponge-like structure of these cells. Photo credit: Katherine King, Duke University.
Ben Barres, a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, who was not involved with the study, praised the findings as “a profoundly important, revolutionary advance” for understanding how interactions between neurons and astrocytes can affect synapse formation.
Dr. Ji is a distinguished professor of anesthesiology in the Duke University School of Medicine, co-director of Duke Anesthesiology’s Center for Translational Pain Medicine and a member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. His Sensory Plasticity and Pain Research Laboratory focuses on identifying molecular and cellular mechanisms that underlie the genesis of chronic pain and developing novel pain therapies that can target those mechanisms.