The use of astrocytes in culture as model systems for evaluating neurotoxic-induced-injury

Neurotoxicology. 1991 Fall;12(3):505-17.


The prevailing thought that astrocytes function predominantly as passive metabolic or even physical support for neurons has faded over the last 20 years. Today these stellar shaped cells are credited with an expanded role, playing key functions in CNS development, homeostasis, and pathology. In probing their expanded roles, primary astrocyte culture systems have proven to be an indispensable tool. Astrocytes have been implicated in both a defensive and facilitatory capacity for many toxic injuries. Evidence for a protective role of astrocytes in modulating CNS toxicity is afforded by observations that the toxicity of glutamate to cortical neurons is diminished upon astrocytic enrichment of the cell culture (Rosenberg and Aizenman, 1989). In cultures of rat cerebral cortex in which astrocyte proliferation is stringently suppressed, glutamate neurotoxicity occurs at low glutamate concentrations similar to those which are normally found in the extracellular space in the hippocampus. In the presence of excess astrocytes, concentrations of glutamate one-hundred fold higher are required to produce equivalent neurotoxicity (Rosenberg and Aizenman, 1989). Astrocytes can facilitate the action of neurotoxins via a modulating process which takes place within the astrocyte or by a direct cytotoxic effect. Whereas primary astrocyte cultures remain unaffected by 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine (MPTP; Marini et al., 1989), they function prominently in the selective destruction of dopaminergic neurons of the nigrostriatal pathway in humans, other primates and rodents (Davis et al. 1979; Langston et al., 1983; Burns et al., 1983; Langston et al., 1984; Heikkila et al., 1984; Jarvis and Wagner, 1985). Thus, while MPTP by itself is not toxic to cerebellar cells in co-culture with cerebellar astrocytes, MPTP is toxic to the granule cells (Marini et al, 1989). This is thought to be due to an astrocyte-mediated conversion of MPTP to its highly polar and toxic metabolite, 1-methyl-4-phenylpyridinium ion (MPP+; Chiba et al. 1984). There is compelling evidence that astrocytes respond directly or indirectly to a number of other neurotoxins. Direct cytotoxic effects on astrocytes constitute the major morphologic feature in hyperammonemia (Norenberg, 1981), a condition implicated as an etiologic factor in several CNS disorders. In addition, a predisposition of astrocytes for methylmercury uptake (Aschner et al., 1990 a,b) offers a possible explanation for the observed neurotoxicity of this heavy metal, since a direct toxic effect on astrocytes would result in failure of astrocyte homeostatic functions, indirectly resulting in neuronal impairment, injury and death.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Ammonia / toxicity
  • Animals
  • Astrocytes / drug effects
  • Astrocytes / physiology*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Glutamates / toxicity
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Huntington Disease / physiopathology
  • MPTP Poisoning
  • Metals / toxicity
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Nerve Degeneration / drug effects
  • Nervous System / drug effects*


  • Glutamates
  • Metals
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Ammonia