Important Shapeshifter: Mechanisms Allowing Astrocytes to Respond to the Changing Nervous System During Development, Injury and Disease

Front Cell Neurosci. 2018 Aug 21;12:261. doi: 10.3389/fncel.2018.00261. eCollection 2018.


Astrocytes are the most prevalent glial cells in the brain. Historically considered as "merely supporting" neurons, recent research has shown that astrocytes actively participate in a large variety of central nervous system (CNS) functions including synaptogenesis, neuronal transmission and synaptic plasticity. During disease and injury, astrocytes efficiently protect neurons by various means, notably by sealing them off from neurotoxic factors and repairing the blood-brain barrier. Their ramified morphology allows them to perform diverse tasks by interacting with synapses, blood vessels and other glial cells. In this review article, we provide an overview of how astrocytes acquire their complex morphology during development. We then move from the developing to the mature brain, and review current research on perisynaptic astrocytic processes, with a particular focus on how astrocytes engage synapses and modulate their formation and activity. Comprehensive changes have been reported in astrocyte cell shape in many CNS pathologies. Factors influencing these morphological changes are summarized in the context of brain pathologies, such as traumatic injury and degenerative conditions. We provide insight into the molecular, cellular and cytoskeletal machinery behind these shape changes which drive the dynamic remodeling in astrocyte morphology during injury and the development of pathologies.

Keywords: CNS; astrocytes; astrogliosis; brain trauma; cytoskeleton; morphology; pathology; synapse.