Overwhelmed? Your Astrocytes Can Help With That

Summary: New research reveals a newly discovered brain circuit that involves astrocytes, a type of brain cell that tunes into and moderates the chatter between overactive neurons. This discovery could hold the key to treating attention disorders like ADHD, and sheds new light on how the brain processes information when overwhelmed.

Source: UCSF

A brimming inbox on Monday morning sets your head spinning. You take a moment to breathe and your mind clears enough to survey the emails one by one. This calming effect occurs thanks to a newly discovered brain circuit involving a lesser-known type of brain cell, the astrocyte.

According to new research from UC San Francisco, astrocytes tune into and moderate the chatter between overactive neurons.

This new brain circuit, described March 30, 2023 in Nature Neuroscience, plays a role in modulating attention and perception, and may hold a key to treating attention disorders like ADHD that are neither well understood nor well treated, despite an abundance of research on the role of neurons.

Scientists found that noradrenaline, a neurotransmitter that can be thought of as adrenaline for the brain, sends one chemical message to neurons to be more alert, while sending another to astrocytes to quiet down the over-active neurons.

“When you’re startled or overwhelmed, there’s so much activity going on in your brain that you can’t take in any more information,” said Kira Poskanzer, PhD, an assistant professor of biochemistry and biophysics and senior author of the study.

Until this study, it was assumed that brain activity just quieted down with time as the amount of noradrenaline in the brain dissipated.

“We’ve shown that, in fact, it’s astrocytes pulling the handbrake and driving the brain to a more relaxed state,” Poskanzer said.

A Missing Piece

Astrocytes are star-shaped cells woven between the brain’s neurons in a grid-like pattern. Their many star arms connect a single astrocyte to thousands of synapses, which are the connections between neurons. This arrangement positions astrocytes to eavesdrop on neurons and regulate their signals.

These cells have traditionally been thought of as simple support cells for neurons, but new research in the last decade shows that astrocytes respond to a variety of neurotransmitters and may have pivotal roles in neurologic conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

Michael Reitman, PhD, first author of the paper who was a graduate student in Poskanzer’s lab when he did the research, wanted to know whether astrocyte activity could explain how the brain recovers from a burst of noradrenaline.

“It seemed like there was a central piece missing in the explanation of how our brains recover from that acute stress,” said Reitman. “There are these other cells right nearby which are sensitive to noradrenaline and might help coordinate what the neurons around them are doing.”

Gatekeepers of Perception

The team focused on understanding perception, or how the brain processes sensory experiences, which can be quite different depending on what state a person (or any other animal) is in at the time.

For example, if you hear thunder while cozying up indoors, the sound may seem relaxing and your brain may even tune it out. But if you hear the same sound out on a hike, your brain may become more alert and focused on safety.

“These differences in our perception of a sensory stimulus happen because our brains are processing the information differently, based on the environment and state we’re already in,” said Poskanzer, who is also a member of the Kavli Institute for Fundamental Neuroscience.

This shows a stressed man
Until this study, it was assumed that brain activity just quieted down with time as the amount of noradrenaline in the brain dissipated. Image is in the public domain

“Our team is trying to understand how this processing looks different in the brain under these different circumstances,” she said.

Completing the Puzzle

To do that, Poskanzer and Reitman looked at how mice responded when given a drug that stimulates the same receptors that respond to noradrenaline. They then measured how much the mice’s pupils dilated and looked at brain signals in the visual cortex.

But what they found seemed counterintuitive: rather than exciting the mice, the drug relaxed them.

“This result really didn’t make sense, given the models we have, and that led us down the path of thinking that another cell type could be important here,” Poskanzer said.

“It turns out that these two things are yoked together in a feedback circuit. Given how many neurons each astrocyte can talk to, this system makes them really important and nuanced regulators of our perception.”

The researchers suspect that astrocytes may play a similar role for other neurotransmitters in the brain, since being able to transition smoothly from one brain state to another is essential for survival.

“We didn’t expect the cycle to look like this, but it makes so much sense now,” Poskanzer said. “It’s so elegant.”

Authors: Additional authors on the paper include Vincent Tse, Drew D. Willoughby, Alba Peinado, Bat-Erdene Myagmar, and Paul C. Simpson, Jr. of UCSF, Xuelong Mi and Guoqiang Yu of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, and Alexander Aivazidis and Omer A. Bayraktar of the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

Funding: This work was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (R01NS099254, R01MH121446, R01MH110504) and the National Science Foundation (grant no. 1750931 and CAREER 1942360).

About this neuroscience research news

Author: Robin Marks
Source: UCSF
Contact: Robin Marks – UCSF
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Closed access.
Norepinephrine links astrocytic activity to regulation of cortical state” by Kira Poskanzer et al. Nature Neuroscience


Norepinephrine links astrocytic activity to regulation of cortical state

Cortical state, defined by population-level neuronal activity patterns, determines sensory perception. While arousal-associated neuromodulators—including norepinephrine (NE)—reduce cortical synchrony, how the cortex resynchronizes remains unknown.

Furthermore, general mechanisms regulating cortical synchrony in the wake state are poorly understood. Using in vivo imaging and electrophysiology in mouse visual cortex, we describe a critical role for cortical astrocytes in circuit resynchronization.

We characterize astrocytes’ calcium responses to changes in behavioral arousal and NE, and show that astrocytes signal when arousal-driven neuronal activity is reduced and bi-hemispheric cortical synchrony is increased. Using in vivo pharmacology, we uncover a paradoxical, synchronizing response to Adra1a receptor stimulation.

We reconcile these results by demonstrating that astrocyte-specific deletion of Adra1a enhances arousal-driven neuronal activity, while impairing arousal-related cortical synchrony.

Our findings demonstrate that astrocytic NE signaling acts as a distinct neuromodulatory pathway, regulating cortical state and linking arousal-associated desynchrony to cortical circuit resynchronization.

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