Epilepsies comprise a family of multifactorial neurological disorders that affect at least 50 million people worldwide. Despite a long history of neurobiological and clinical studies the mechanisms that lead the brain network to a hyperexcitable state and to the intense, massive neuronal discharges reflecting a seizure episode are only partially defined. Most epilepsies of genetic origin are related to mutations in ionic channels that cause neuronal hyperexcitability. However, idiopathic epilepsies of unclear origin represent the majority of these brain disorders. A large body of evidence suggests that in the epileptic brain neurons are not the only players. Indeed, the glial cell astrocyte is known to be morphologically and functionally altered in different types of epilepsy. Although it is unclear whether these astrocyte dysfunctions can have a causative role in epileptogenesis, the hypothesis that astrocytes contribute to epileptiform activities recently received a considerable experimental support. Notably, currently used antiepileptic drugs, that act mainly on neuronal ion channels, are ineffective in a large group of patients. Clarifying astrocyte functions in the epileptic brain tissue could unveil astrocytes as novel therapeutic targets. In this review we present first a short overview on the role of astrocytes in the epileptic brain starting from the “historical” observations on their fundamental modulation of brain homeostasis, such as the control of water content, ionic equilibrium, and neurotransmitters concentrations. We then focus our review on most recent studies that hint at a distinct contribution of these cells in the generation of focal epileptiform activities.
astrocyte; epilepsy; seizures; glial-neuronal interactions; ictal event
Astroglial cells, due to their passive electrical properties, were long considered subservient to neurons and to merely provide the framework and metabolic support of the brain. Although astrocytes do play such structural and housekeeping roles in the brain, these glial cells also contribute to the brain's computational power and behavioural output. These more active functions are endowed by the Ca2+-based excitability displayed by astrocytes. An increase in cytosolic Ca2+ levels in astrocytes can lead to the release of signalling molecules, a process termed gliotransmission, via the process of regulated exocytosis. Dynamic components of astrocytic exocytosis include the vesicular-plasma membrane secretory machinery, as well as the vesicular traffic, which is governed not only by general cytoskeletal elements but also by astrocyte-specific IFs (intermediate filaments). Gliotransmitters released into the ECS (extracellular space) can exert their actions on neighbouring neurons, to modulate synaptic transmission and plasticity, and to affect behaviour by modulating the sleep homoeostat. Besides these novel physiological roles, astrocytic Ca2+ dynamics, Ca2+-dependent gliotransmission and astrocyte–neuron signalling have been also implicated in brain disorders, such as epilepsy. The aim of this review is to highlight the newer findings concerning Ca2+ signalling in astrocytes and exocytotic gliotransmission. For this we report on Ca2+ sources and sinks that are necessary and sufficient for regulating the exocytotic release of gliotransmitters and discuss secretory machinery, secretory vesicles and vesicle mobility regulation. Finally, we consider the exocytotic gliotransmission in the modulation of synaptic transmission and plasticity, as well as the astrocytic contribution to sleep behaviour and epilepsy.
astrocyte; exocytosis; epilepsy; sleep; synaptic transmission; traffic; ADA, adenosine deaminase; ADK, adenosine kinase; ANP, atrial natriuretic peptide; 2-APB, diphenylboric acid 2-aminoethyl ester; [Ca2+]i, cytosolic/intracellular Ca2+ levels; Cm, membrane capacitance; dnSNARE, dominant negative SNARE; ECS, extracellular space; EGFP, enhanced GFP; Emd, emerald green; ENT, equilibrative nucleoside transporter; ER, endoplasmic reticulum; GABA, γ-aminobutyric acid; GAT-1, GABA transporter-1; GFAP, glial fibrillary acidic protein; GFP, green fluorescent protein; GluR, glutamate receptor; HEK-293 cells, human embryonic kidney cells; IF, intermediate filament; InsP3R, inositol 1,4,5-trisphosphate receptor; LTP, long-term potentiation; mGluR, metabotropic GluR; NCX, Na+/Ca2+ exchanger; NMDAR, N-methyl-d-aspartate receptor; Ru360, Ruthenium 360; RyR, ryanodine receptor; SERCA, sarcoplasmic/endoplasmic reticulum Ca2+-ATPase; SNARE, soluble N-ethylmaleimide-sensitive fusion protein-attachment protein receptor; SOCE, store-operated Ca2+ entry; Sb2, synaptobrevin 2; SNAP-23, 23 kDa synaptosome-associated protein; SWA, slow wave activity; TIRFM, total internal reflection microscopy; TRP, transient receptor potential; TRPC1, TRP canonical 1; V-ATPase, vacuolar type of proton ATPase; VGCC, voltage-gated Ca2+ channels; VGLUT, vesicular glutamate transporter
Empirical research in the last decade revealed that astrocytes can respond to neurotransmitters with Ca2+ elevations and generate feedback signals to neurons which modulate synaptic transmission and neuronal excitability. This discovery changed our basic understanding of brain function and provided new perspectives for how astrocytes can participate not only to information processing, but also to the genesis of brain disorders, such as epilepsy. Epilepsy is a neurological disorder characterized by recurrent seizures that can arise focally at restricted areas and propagate throughout the brain. Studies in brain slice models suggest that astrocytes contribute to epileptiform activity by increasing neuronal excitability through a Ca2+-dependent release of glutamate. The underlying mechanism remains, however, unclear. In this study, we implemented a parsimonious network model of neurons and astrocytes. The model consists of excitatory and inhibitory neurons described by Izhikevich's neuron dynamics. The experimentally observed Ca2+ change in astrocytes in response to neuronal activity was modeled with linear equations. We considered that glutamate is released from astrocytes above certain intracellular Ca2+ concentrations thus providing a non-linear positive feedback signal to neurons. Propagating seizure-like ictal discharges (IDs) were reliably evoked in our computational model by repeatedly exciting a small area of the network, which replicates experimental results in a slice model of focal ID in entorhinal cortex. We found that the threshold of focal ID generation was lowered when an excitatory feedback-loop between astrocytes and neurons was included. Simulations show that astrocytes can contribute to ID generation by directly affecting the excitatory/inhibitory balance of the neuronal network. Our model can be used to obtain mechanistic insights into the distinct contributions of the different signaling pathways to the generation and propagation of focal IDs.
computational model; epilepsy; excitation/inhibition balance; neuron-astrocyte interaction; tripartite synapse
Activation of astrocytes by neuronal signals plays a central role in the control of neuronal activity-dependent blood flow changes in the normal brain. The cellular pathways that mediate neurovascular coupling in the epileptic brain remain, however, poorly defined. In a cortical slice model of epilepsy, we found that the ictal, seizure-like discharge, and only to a minor extent the interictal discharge, evokes both a Ca2+ increase in astrocyte endfeet and a vasomotor response. We also observed that rapid ictal discharge-induced arteriole responses were regularly preceded by Ca2+ elevations in endfeet and were abolished by pharmacological inhibition of Ca2+ signals in these astrocyte processes. Under these latter conditions, arterioles exhibited after the ictal discharge only slowly developing vasodilations. The poor efficacy of interictal discharges, compared with ictal discharges, to activate endfeet was confirmed also in the intact in vitro isolated guinea pig brain. Although the possibility of a direct contribution of neurons, in particular in the late response of cerebral blood vessels to epileptic discharges, should be taken into account, our study supports the view that astrocytes are central for neurovascular coupling also in the epileptic brain. The massive endfeet Ca2+ elevations evoked by ictal discharges and the poor response to interictal events represent new information potentially relevant to interpret data from diagnostic brain imaging techniques, such as functional magnetic resonance, utilized in the clinic to localize neural activity and to optimize neurosurgery of untreatable epilepsies.
epilepsy; calcium; neurovascular coupling
Status epilepticus (SE), an unremitting seizure, is known to cause a variety of traumatic responses including delayed neuronal death and later cognitive decline. Although excitotoxicity has been implicated in this delayed process, the cellular mechanisms are unclear. Because our previous brain slice studies have shown that chemically induced epileptiform activity can lead to elevated astrocytic Ca2+ signaling and because these signals are able to induce the release of the excitotoxic transmitter glutamate from these glia, we asked whether astrocytes are activated during status epilepticus and whether they contribute to delayed neuronal death in vivo. Using two-photon microscopy in vivo, we show that status epilepticus enhances astrocytic Ca2+ signals for 3 d and that the period of elevated glial Ca2+ signaling is correlated with the period of delayed neuronal death. To ask whether astrocytes contribute to delayed neuronal death, we first administered antagonists which inhibit gliotransmission: MPEP [2-methyl-6-(phenylethynyl)pyridine], a metabotropic glutamate receptor 5 antagonist that blocks astrocytic Ca2+ signals in vivo, and ifenprodil, an NMDA receptor antagonist that reduces the actions of glial-derived glutamate. Administration of these antagonists after SE provided significant neuronal protection raising the potential for a glial contribution to neuronal death. To test this glial hypothesis directly, we loaded Ca2+ chelators selectively into astrocytes after status epilepticus. We demonstrate that the selective attenuation of glial Ca2+ signals leads to neuronal protection. These observations support neurotoxic roles for astrocytic gliotransmission in pathological conditions and identify this process as a novel therapeutic target.
astrocyte; NMDA; metabotropic glutamate receptor; epilepsy; calcium; astrocytic glutamate release