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The most studied, hence best-known, cells of the central nervous system are neuron sor nerve cells.The brain tissue also has glial cells, which function as physical support for neurons, which so far have hardly come into prominence. At the University of Debrecen research is under way that focuses on one type of these lesser-known cells: astrocytes.
- We are only halfway through understanding the task of astrocytes but one thing is certain: their importance is much greater than previously thought by scientists. It is important for us to know their role in diverse healthy states and diseases. It is an important question how they participate in the development of diverse neurodegenerative diseaases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases and in speeding up their course, said Balázs Pál, researcher of the Insitute of Life Sciences of the Faculty of General Medicine.
How do neurons and glial cells communicate? How can this be detected during functioning, and how can this be modelled while selectively activating astrocytes only? These are the questions to which the professional of the Institute is trying to find an answer.
- Most effects that target astrocytes also influence neurons, what is more, the entire nervous tissue as well. hence they are very difficult to inhibit or stimulate selectively. The solution can be optogenetics, a method developed only a couple of years ago, explains Balázs Pál.
The research team uses this technique to examine samples from the brains of genetically modified mice.
- We use blue light following a well-defined protocol to light the specially preserved (fresh) slices of brain brain to selectively stimulate them. During the procedure we measure the neurons’ electric activity, while using imaging techniques to examine the glial cells’ activity, the researcher explains. The optogenetic activation of astrocytes has been first performed at the University of Debrecen, making the research nationally unique, too.
The basic research carried out in cooperation between the Insitute of Life Sciences and the Institute of Anatomy, Histology and Embryology can help better understand the effects induced by astrocytes, which later may contribute to developing therapies targeting astrocytes. According to Balázs Pál, the development of medicines targeting astrocytes that would slow down the development of neurological and psychiatric diseases such as Alzhemier’s, Parkinson’s diseases, depression and schizophrenia will in futre become possible.