White matter astrocytes in health and disease

Neuroscience. 2014 Sep 12:276:161-73. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2013.10.050. Epub 2013 Nov 11.


Myelination by oligodendrocytes is a highly specialized process that relies on intimate interactions between the axon and the oligodendrocytes. Astrocytes have an important part in facilitating myelination in the CNS, however, comparatively less is known about how they affect myelination. This review therefore summarizes the literature and explores lingering questions surrounding differences between white matter and gray matter astrocytes, how astrocytes support myelination, how their dysfunction in pathological states contributes to myelin pathologies and how astrocytes may facilitate remyelination. We discuss how astrocytes in the white matter are specialized to promote myelination and myelin maintenance by clearance of extracellular ions and neurotransmitters and by secretion of pro-myelinating factors. Additionally, astrocyte-oligodendrocyte coupling via gap junctions is crucial for both myelin formation and maintenance, due to K(+) buffering and possibly metabolic support for oligodendrocytes via the panglial syncytium. Dysfunctional astrocytes aberrantly affect oligodendrocytes, as exemplified by a number of leukodystrophies in which astrocytic pathology is known as the direct cause of myelin pathology. Conversely, in primary demyelinating diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, astrocytes may facilitate remyelination. We suggest that specific manipulation of astrocytes could help prevent myelin pathologies and successfully restore myelin sheaths after demyelination.

Keywords: astrocyte heterogeneity; astrocytes; myelination; oligodendrocytes; white matter pathology.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Astrocytes / cytology
  • Astrocytes / physiology*
  • Gray Matter / cytology
  • Humans
  • Multiple Sclerosis / pathology
  • Multiple Sclerosis / physiopathology
  • Myelin Sheath / pathology
  • Myelin Sheath / physiology*
  • Oligodendroglia / physiology*
  • White Matter / cytology
  • White Matter / pathology
  • White Matter / physiology*