Astrocyte Contributions to Cortical Synaptic Plasticity

2021 Seed Grant
Zinzhu Yu, Ph.D.
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

The brain processes and stores information by dynamically changing the structure and function of synaptic connections between individual neurons. This synaptic plasticity allows us to acquire new information, learn challenging skills and recover from brain injury and disease. Undoubtedly, it is of significant impact to understand the biological basis of synaptic plasticity. Besides intrinsic signals from neurons, extrinsic signals from other non-neuronal cells called glial cells are found to be essential in the development and maintenance of synaptic plasticity. As the most abundant form of glial cells, astrocytes are widespread throughout the entire central nervous system and make close contact with neurons, other glial cells and blood vessels. Mounting evidence has shown that astrocytes are far more than supportive “glue” and can actively regulate synaptic functions and ultimately behavior via intracellular calcium signaling. In fact, astrocyte calcium signaling alterations have been implicated in the emergence of numerous neurological and psychiatric disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, autism and major depressive disorder. Thus, deciphering the logic of astrocyte calcium signaling has a great potential to profoundly improve our understanding of the brain function and dysfunction. The research we propose aims at using a variety of state-of-the-art molecular and cellular tools and techniques to understand how astrocyte calcium signaling evolves and modulates synaptic plasticity during postnatal development. Our findings will set the necessary framework for the development of future therapeutics to exploit astrocyte signaling for the treatment of neurological and psychiatric disorders related to impaired synaptic plasticity.

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