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One Cell, Many Roles

Mouse brain showing astrocytes

August 29, 2016

Specialized cells called astrocytes were once thought to be bit players in the central nervous system, but closer inspection suggests they have complex roles.

A patient regains consciousness after a devastating accident to learn that his spinal cord has been crushed and he may not walk again. A soldier suffers from memory loss after being struck with shrapnel that enters his brain. An elderly patient succumbs to the confusion and jumbled speech of early Alzheimer's.

While the precipitating neurological damage in each of these examples is distinct, in each case, the central nervous system unleashes a chain of biochemical and cellular responses that irreversibly destroys the brain's neurons.

Why can't the nervous system heal itself the way other parts of the body do? To answer that question, researchers are studying how central nervous system cells respond to injury.

Drexel neurobiologist Denise Garcia has focused on relatively under-studied cells called astrocytes. Astrocytes are a type of glia cell, so named because they were once regarded as mere "glue" that provides structural support to neurons. Historically, they've been overlooked by neuroscientists, but that's starting to change.

Read more in Exel magazine