Research to focus on astrocyte-synapse interactions
Astrocytes are “stars” not just because of their stellate shape, but because these non-neuronal glial cells regulate synaptic connectivity and function between neurons in the brain. Scientists know a lot about neurons, but less, especially at the molecular level, about astrocytes and their interactions with neurons.
Two Duke researchers will use a $2.1 million grant award from the prestigious Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative® through the National Institutes of Health to advance understanding of astrocyte structures and function, as well as dysfunction that may contribute to brain disorders. The grant is titled, “New Proteomic and Genome Engineering Approaches to Decipher Astrocyte Function at Synapses.”
Astrocytes are the most abundant glial cells in the human brain. “Interactions of astrocytes with synapses are critical for proper synaptic connectivity and function,” said Scott H. Soderling, professor of Cell Biology and Neurobiology, and co-principal investigator with Cagla Eroglu, associate professor of Cell Biology and Neurobiology, in the Duke School of Medicine. They also are members of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences (DIBS) Faculty Network.
The number of astrocytes and the extent of their interactions with synapses have increased throughout evolution, Soderling added, indicating a close link between astrocytes and cognition, so how well your brain’s astrocytes are working relates directly to how effectively and efficiently the thinking, or cognitive, portion of your brain functions.
There is also emerging evidence suggesting that dysfunction of astrocyte-synapse interactions contributes to a variety of brain disorders, Eroglu noted. “In contrast to neuronal synaptic structures, however, we are largely blind to the molecular composition and mechanisms of the astrocyte’s perisynaptic structures.”
The researchers expect to use newer technologies such as genome editing, and proteomics to analyze the composition of proteins within the perisynaptic processes of astrocytes, and to better understand their importance in synaptic transmission and cognition.
“Until recently, it has not been possible to purify and identify proteins at subcellular regions of astrocytes, as researchers have been able to do with neuronal synaptic structures,” Eroglu said. “Using these new approaches, we hope to reveal the proteins and inner workings of astrocyte processes that associate with and modulate synapses, yielding data to provide a new molecular framework for future studies on astrocyte-neuron interactions.”