Role of Astrocytes in the Maintenance and Modulation of Glutamatergic and GABAergic Neurotransmission
The functional activity in the brain is primarily composed of an interplay between excitation and inhibition. In any given region the output is based upon a complex processing of incoming signals that require both excitatory and inhibitory units. Moreover, these units must be regulated and balanced such that an integrated and finely tuned response is generated. In each of these units or synapses the activity depends on biosynthesis, release, receptor interaction, and inactivation of the neurotransmitter in question; thus, it is easily understood that each of these processes needs to be highly regulated and controlled. It is interesting to note that in case of the most prevailing neurotransmitters, glutamate and GABA, which mediate excitation and inhibition, respectively, the inactivation process is primarily maintained by highly efficient, high-affinity transport systems capable of maintaining transmembrane concentration gradients of these amino acids of 104–105-fold. The demonstration of the presence of transporters for glutamate and GABA in both neuronal and astrocytic elements naturally raises the question of the functional importance of the astrocytes in the regulation of the level of the neurotransmitters in the synaptic cleft and hence for the activity of excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmission. Obviously, this discussion has important implications for the understanding of the role of astrocytes in disease states in which imbalances between excitation and inhibition are a triggering factor, for example, epilepsy and neurodegeneration.
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