Although it is considered to be the most complex organ in the body, the brain can be broadly classified into two major types of cells, neuronal cells and glial cells. Glia is a general term that encompasses multiple types of non-neuronal cells that function to maintain homeostasis, form myelin, and provide support and protection for neurons. Astrocytes, a major class of glial cell, have historically been viewed as passive support cells, but recently it has been discovered that astrocytes participate in signalling activities both with the vasculature and with neurons at the synapse. These cells have been shown to release D-serine, TNF-α, glutamate, atrial natriuretic peptide (ANP) and ATP among other signalling molecules. ATP and its metabolites are well established as important signalling molecules, and astrocytes represent a major source of ATP release in the nervous system. Novel molecular and genetic tools have recently shown that astrocytic release of ATP and other signalling molecules has a major impact on synaptic transmission. Via actions at the synapse, astrocytes have now been shown to regulate complex network signalling in the whole organism with impacts on respiration and the sleep-wake cycle. In addition, new roles for astrocytes are being uncovered in psychiatric disorders, and astrocyte signalling mechanisms represents an attractive target for novel therapeutic agents.
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