Activity-dependent structural and functional plasticity of astrocyte-neuron interactions

Physiol Rev. 2008 Jul;88(3):983-1008. doi: 10.1152/physrev.00036.2007.


Observations from different brain areas have established that the adult nervous system can undergo significant experience-related structural changes throughout life. Less familiar is the notion that morphological plasticity affects not only neurons but glial cells as well. Yet there is abundant evidence showing that astrocytes, the most numerous cells in the mammalian brain, are highly mobile. Under physiological conditions as different as reproduction, sensory stimulation, and learning, they display a remarkable structural plasticity, particularly conspicuous at the level of their lamellate distal processes that normally ensheath all portions of neurons. Distal astrocytic processes can undergo morphological changes in a matter of minutes, a remodeling that modifies the geometry and diffusion properties of the extracellular space and relationships with adjacent neuronal elements, especially synapses. Astrocytes respond to neuronal activity via ion channels, neurotransmitter receptors, and transporters on their processes; they transmit information via release of neuroactive substances. Where astrocytic processes are mobile then, astrocytic-neuronal interactions become highly dynamic, a plasticity that has important functional consequences since it modifies extracellular ionic homeostasis, neurotransmission, gliotransmission, and ultimately neuronal function at the cellular and system levels. Although a complete picture of intervening cellular mechanisms is lacking, some have been identified, notably certain permissive molecular factors common to systems capable of remodeling (cell surface and extracellular matrix adhesion molecules, cytoskeletal proteins) and molecules that appear specific to each system (neuropeptides, neurotransmitters, steroids, growth factors) that trigger or reverse the morphological changes.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Astrocytes / physiology*
  • Cell Communication*
  • Cell Shape
  • Humans
  • Nervous System Diseases / pathology
  • Nervous System Diseases / physiopathology
  • Neuronal Plasticity*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Signal Transduction*