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MIT neuroscientists give “invisible” cells a new look

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MIT neuroscientists give “invisible” cells a new look

Using sophisticated and precise imaging tools, Sur’s team will monitor astrocyte and neuron activity in the visual cortex as mice see different stimuli. They’ll also use genetic and pharmaceutical tools to manipulate astrocyte activity. A key mechanism that’s likely involved, Sur says, is the way astrocytes deploy a molecule called GLT1 to regulate the level and time course of the neurotransmitter glutamate. Glutamate is vital because it mediates communication between neurons across synapses. By systematically manipulating the GLT1 activity of astrocytes in the visual cortex and measuring the effects, Sur says, the team will be able to determine how astrocytes contribute to the performance and formation of neural circuits.
“Just as neurons have their spiking code, we think there is an astrocyte calcium code that reflects and works in partnership with neurons,” Sur says. “That’s totally underappreciated but very important.”
The results will matter for more than just vision, Sur says. The visual cortex is a perfect model system in which to work, he says, but astrocytes are also believed to be important, if poorly understood, in disorders as wide-ranging as Alzheimer’s disease and developmental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism.
“Astrocytes are emerging as a major player because disorders of brain development have genetic origins,” Sur says. “Genes expressed in astrocytes are emerging as very important risk factors for autism and schizophrenia.”
The new grant from the National Eye Institute (grant number R01EY028219) lasts for four years.

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