Differential sensitivity of brainstem versus cortical astrocytes to changes in pH reveals functional regional specialization of astroglia

J Neurosci. 2013 Jan 9;33(2):435-41. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2813-12.2013.


Astrocytes might function as brain interoceptors capable of detecting different (chemo)sensory modalities and transmitting sensory information to the relevant neural networks controlling vital functions. For example, astrocytes that reside near the ventral surface of the brainstem (central respiratory chemosensitive area) respond to physiological decreases in pH with vigorous elevations in intracellular Ca(2+) and release of ATP. ATP transmits astroglial excitation to the brainstem respiratory network and contributes to adaptive changes in lung ventilation. Here we show that in terms of pH-sensitivity, ventral brainstem astrocytes are clearly distinct from astrocytes residing in the cerebral cortex. We monitored vesicular fusion in cultured rat brainstem astrocytes using total internal reflection fluorescence microscopy and found that ∼35% of them respond to acidification with an increased rate of exocytosis of ATP-containing vesicular compartments. These fusion events require intracellular Ca(2+) signaling and are independent of autocrine ATP actions. In contrast, the rate of vesicular fusion in cultured cortical astrocytes is not affected by changes in pH. Compared to cortical astrocytes, ventral brainstem astrocytes display higher levels of expression of genes encoding proteins associated with ATP vesicular transport and fusion, including vesicle-associated membrane protein-3 and vesicular nucleotide transporter. These results suggest that astrocytes residing in different parts of the rat brain are functionally specialized. In contrast to cortical astrocytes, astrocytes of the brainstem chemosensitive area(s) possess signaling properties that are functionally relevant-they are able to sense changes in pH and respond to acidification with enhanced vesicular release of ATP.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adenosine Triphosphate / pharmacology
  • Animals
  • Astrocytes / physiology*
  • Biological Transport, Active / physiology
  • Brain Stem / cytology
  • Brain Stem / physiology*
  • Carbon Dioxide / physiology
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cerebral Cortex / cytology
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Data Interpretation, Statistical
  • Dextrans / pharmacology
  • Enzyme Inhibitors / pharmacology
  • Exocytosis / drug effects
  • Female
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Male
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • Quinacrine / pharmacology
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Real-Time Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Synaptic Vesicles / metabolism


  • Dextrans
  • Enzyme Inhibitors
  • Carbon Dioxide
  • Adenosine Triphosphate
  • Quinacrine