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Researchers grow ‘bodyguard’ Astrocyte brain cells in lab

Many researchers have overlooked the importance of the astrocyte brain cell, focusing on the neuron. But for the first time scientists have been able to grow them in the lab.

Sh Chun Zhang, a study researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison said “Not a lot of attention has been paid to these cells because human astrocytes have been hard to get. But we can make billions or trillions of them from a single stem cell.”

A false-color view of human brain tissue shows an astrocyte (green) reaching out to a blood vessel (yellow and red). The neurons (blue) are not in direct contact with the vessel and rely on astrocytes for the transport of nutrients of waste.

Astrocytes are tiny, star shaped cells in the brain which act as bodyguards to the neuron cells and they play an important role in diseases of the central nervous system, including dementia. Neuron’s are less populated than Astrocytes, but have proven easier to duplicate in the lab. As Scientists have now worked out a way of replicating them, it means that researches should be able to understand their role in normal brain functioning and potentially find cures for diseases.

Zhang added “Without the astrocyte, neurons can’t function. Astrocytes wrap around nerve cells to protect them and keep them healthy. They participate in virtually every function or disorder of the brain.”

Neurons are protected by the Astrocytes, working to regulate blood flow, and by cleaning up excess neurotransmitters. They also play a primary role in controlling the blood brain barrier which ensures that toxic substances are kept out of the brain.

Zhang made a breakthrough by creating the cells from both adult and embryonic stem cells by treating them with special proteins to get them to grow into Astrocytes. These cells could be used for transplant procedures and to help treat diseases such as Lou Gehrig’s disease in which neurons are overworked. By transplanting more Astrocytes, the Neurons could be helped to regain a symbiotic state.

KitGuru says: This study was sourced yesterday from the Nature Biotechnology journal.

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