Healthy Sleep Via Overlooked Brain Cells

A new study from the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) shows that cells called astrocytes can independently promote longer or deeper sleep in mice. According to a press release from UCSF, the findings could open new avenues for exploring sleep disorder therapies and help scientists better understand brain diseases linked to sleep disturbances, like Alzheimer’s and other dementias, the authors say.

“This is the first example where someone did an acute and fast manipulation of astrocytes and showed that it was able to actually affect sleep,” said Trisha Vaidyanathan, the study’s first author and a neuroscience graduate student at UCSF. “That positions astrocytes as an active player in sleep. It’s really exciting.”

Comprising an estimated 25 percent to 30 percent of brain cells, astrocytes are a type of so-called glial cell that blanket the brain with countless bushy tendrils. This coverage allows each individual astrocyte to listen in on tens of thousands of synapses, the sites of communication between neurons.

UCSF’s Lindzi Wessel writes: “The plentiful cells connect to each other through specialized channels, which researchers think may allow astrocytes located across the brain to function as one unified network. The hyperconnected and ubiquitous astrocytes might be able to drive synchronized signaling in neurons, as suggested by the new study, published March 17, 2021, in eLife.”

“This could give us new insights not only into sleep but into diseases in which sleep dysregulation is a symptom,” said study senior author Kira Poskanzer, PhD, an assistant professor in the UCSF Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. “Maybe some diseases are affecting astrocytes in a way we hadn’t thought about before.”

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