The Role of Astrocytes in Migraine with Cortical Spreading Depression: Protagonists or Bystanders? A Narrative Review

Pain Ther. 2024 Aug;13(4):679-690. doi: 10.1007/s40122-024-00610-9. Epub 2024 May 14.


Cortical spreading depression (CSD) is a slow wave of cortical depolarization closely associated with migraines with an aura. Previously, it was thought that CSD depolarization was mainly driven by neurons, with characteristic changes in neuronal swelling and increased extracellular potassium (K+) and glutamate. However, the role of astrocytes, a member of the neurovascular unit, in migraine with CSD has recently received increasing attention. In the early stages of CSD, astrocytes provide neurons with energy support and clear K+ and glutamate from synaptic gaps. However, in the late stages of CSD, astrocytes release large amounts of lactic acid to exacerbate hypoxia when the energy demand exceeds the astrocytes' compensatory capacity. Astrocyte endfoot swelling is a characteristic of CSD, and neurons are not similarly altered. It is primarily due to K+ influx and abnormally active calcium (Ca2+) signaling. Aquaporin 4 (AQP-4) only mediates K+ influx and has little role as an aquaporin. Astrocytes endfoot swelling causes perivascular space closure, slowing the glymphatic system flow and exacerbating neuroinflammation, leading to persistent CSD. Astrocytes are double-edged swords in migraine with CSD and may be potential targets for CSD interventions.

Keywords: Aura; CSD; Depolarization; Energy metabolism; Glymphatic system; Headache; Inflammatory mediators; Neurovascular unit.

Publication types

  • Review