Human astrocytes: structure and functions in the healthy brain

Brain Struct Funct. 2017 Jul;222(5):2017-2029. doi: 10.1007/s00429-017-1383-5. Epub 2017 Mar 9.


Data collected on astrocytes' physiology in the rodent have placed them as key regulators of synaptic, neuronal, network, and cognitive functions. While these findings proved highly valuable for our awareness and appreciation of non-neuronal cell significance in brain physiology, early structural and phylogenic investigations of human astrocytes hinted at potentially different astrocytic properties. This idea sparked interest to replicate rodent-based studies on human samples, which have revealed an analogous but enhanced involvement of astrocytes in neuronal function of the human brain. Such evidence pointed to a central role of human astrocytes in sustaining more complex information processing. Here, we review the current state of our knowledge of human astrocytes regarding their structure, gene profile, and functions, highlighting the differences with rodent astrocytes. This recent insight is essential for assessment of the relevance of findings using animal models and for comprehending the functional significance of species-specific properties of astrocytes. Moreover, since dysfunctional astrocytes have been described in many brain disorders, a more thorough understanding of human-specific astrocytic properties is crucial for better-adapted translational applications.

Keywords: Astrocytes; Brain; Human; Neuroglial interactions; Physiology.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Astrocytes / pathology
  • Astrocytes / physiology*
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Diseases / pathology
  • Brain Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Neurons / pathology
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Synapses / physiology