The central nervous system (CNS) is arguably the most important part of the human body. It includes the brain and the spinal cord. The brain is widely believed to be where all our thought originate. It compares and contrasts. It strings together words and paragraphs. It helps us to understand and communicate with the world around us. Given the complexity of this remarkable organ, it is hardly surprising that we are still uncovering its secrets. One such secret is the important role of astrocytes.
The brain isn’t only occupied by neurons. Glial cells are also a local inhabitant. Though long thought to be little more than the neurons’ sidekicks, we now know that glial cells are a crucial component of CNS operations. Astrocytes are one of four identified glial cells in the CNS. Two additional varieties hang out in the periphery nervous system.
Astrocytes are essential for maintaining homeostasis in the CNS. They also play a role In brain defense and rejuvenation. Their malfunction or retardation contributes to cognitive impairment and neurodegenerative disease. The percentage of poorly performing astrocytes, like neurodegenerative diseases, increases with age. Their atrophy has been linked to the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease. In later stages, reactive astrocytes are associated with neurite plaques in several regions of the brain.
As is often the case, understanding the mechanisms that lead to problems is the first step in solving the problems. If atrophy of astrocytes is associated with the first stages of neurodegenerative disease, and then reactive astrocytes are associated with later stages of the illness, they may be a good target for treatments. Luckily, astrocytes are known to respond well to environmental stimulation and also to medication. This may also help to explain why staying mentally active is thought to ward of some types of neurodegenerative diseases. If you can keep your astrocytes healthy, they may help keep your entire brain in tip-top condition, or at least help you remember where you put your keys.