Astrocytes constitute approximately 30% of the cells in the mammalian central nervous system (CNS). They are integral to brain and spinal-cord physiology and perform many functions important for normal neuronal development, synapse formation, and proper propagation of action potentials. We still know very little, however, about how these functions change in response to immune attack, chronic neurodegenerative disease, or acute trauma. In this review, we summarize recent studies that demonstrate that different initiating CNS injuries can elicit at least two types of "reactive" astrocytes with strikingly different properties, one type being helpful and the other harmful. We will also discuss new methods for purifying and investigating reactive-astrocyte functions and provide an overview of new markers for delineating these different states of reactive astrocytes. The discovery that astrocytes have different types of reactive states has important implications for the development of new therapies for CNS injury and diseases.
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