Joining the “Dark Side:” The Toxic Transformation of Astrocyte Brain Cells and Their Role in Neurodegenerative Diseases

By Kanika Kamal

New research has shown that astrocytes, the “helper” cells of the brain, are not always as nice as they seem. Now characterized as “Jekyll and Hyde cell,” these astrocytes that are usually crucial for supporting neuronal function and connectivity have the potential to turn “toxic” following brain injury, leading them to kill other brain cells. Damaged astrocytes have long been implicated in neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease. Until now, however, the mechanism through which astrocyte cells can “turn bad” was unknown. Research from the University of Melbourne and Stanford University has shown that following nerve damage, astrocytes either have the potential to help heal through forming scar tissue, or can become toxic and kill cells. This new information has huge implications for the future of neurodegenerative diseases. Before the mechanism through which astrocytes caused damage was known, neurodegenerative diseases were thought to be difficult to treat or reverse. Following these new insights, scientists may be able to directly target the “toxic” astrocytes in a person’s brain, thus switching them back over to the good side and aiming to reverse the effects of these neurological diseases.

 

University of Melbourne. "Jekyll and Hyde cells: Their role in brain injury and disease revealed." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 February 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/02/170203135559.htm>.