The concept of the tripartite synapse proposes that in addition to the presynapse and the postsynaptic membrane closely apposed processes of astrocytes constitute an integral part of the synapse. Accordingly, astrocytes may influence synaptic activity by various ways. Thus glia- and neuron-derived neurotrophins, cytokines and metabolites influence neuronal survival, synaptic activity and plasticity. Beyond these facts, the past years have shown that astrocytes are required for synaptogenesis, the structural maintenance and proper functioning of synapses. In particular, astrocytes seem to play a key role in the organization of the brain's extracellular matrix (ECM) - most prominently the so-called perineuronal nets (PNNs), complex macromolecular assemblies of ECM components. Due to progress in cellular and molecular neurosciences, it has been possible to decipher the composition of ECM structures and to obtain insight into their function(s) and underlying mechanisms. It appears that PNN-related structures are involved in regulating the sprouting and pruning of synapses, which represents an important morphological correlate of synaptic plasticity in the adult nervous system. Perturbation assays and gene elimination by recombinant techniques have provided clear indications that astrocyte-derived ECM components, e.g. the tenascins and chondroitinsulfate proteoglycans (CSPGs) of the lectican family participate in these biological functions. The present review will discuss the glia-derived glycoproteins and CSPGs of the perisynaptic ECM, their neuronal and glial receptors, and in vitro assays to test their physiological functions in the framework of the synapse, the pivotal element of communication in the central nervous system.
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