Oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) originate in the ventricular zones (VZs) of the brain and spinal cord and migrate throughout the developing central nervous system (CNS) before differentiating into myelinating oligodendrocytes (OLs). It is not known whether OPCs or OLs from different parts of the VZ are functionally distinct. OPCs persist in the postnatal CNS, where they continue to divide and generate myelinating OLs at a decreasing rate throughout adult life in rodents. Adult OPCs respond to injury or disease by accelerating their cell cycle and increasing production of OLs to replace lost myelin. They also form synapses with unmyelinated axons and respond to electrical activity in those axons by generating more OLs and myelin locally. This experience-dependent “adaptive” myelination is important in some forms of plasticity and learning, for example, motor learning. We review the control of OL lineage development, including OL population dynamics and adaptive myelination in the adult CNS.
NG2(+) glial cells are a dynamic population of non-neuronal cells that give rise to myelinating oligodendrocytes in the central nervous system. These cells express numerous ion channels and neurotransmitter receptors, which endow them with a complex electrophysiological profile that is unique among glial cells. Despite extensive analysis of the electrophysiological properties of these cells, relatively little was known about the molecular identity of the channels and receptors that they express. The generation of new RNA-Seq datasets for NG2(+) cells has provided the means to explore how distinct genes contribute to the physiological properties of these progenitors. In this review, we systematically compare the results obtained through RNA-Seq transcriptional analysis of purified NG2(+) cells to previous physiological and molecular studies of these cells to define the complement of ion channels and neurotransmitter receptors expressed by NG2(+) cells in the mammalian brain and discuss the potential significance of the unique physiological properties of these cells.
Astrocytes are highly ramified glial cells found throughout the central nervous system (CNS). They express a variety of neurotransmitter receptors that can induce widespread chemical excitation, placing these cells in an optimal position to exert global effects on brain physiology. However, the activity patterns of only a small fraction of astrocytes have been examined and techniques to manipulate their behavior are limited. As a result, little is known about how astrocytes modulate CNS function on synaptic, microcircuit, or systems levels. Here, we review current and emerging approaches for visualizing and manipulating astrocyte activity in vivo. Deciphering how astrocyte network activity is controlled in different physiological and pathological contexts is crucial for defining their roles in the healthy and diseased CNS.
It has been more than 100 years since Paul Ehrlich reported that various water-soluble dyes injected into the circulation did not enter the brain. Since Ehrlich’s first experiments, only a small number of molecules, such as alcohol and caffeine have been found to cross the blood-brain barrier, and this selective permeability remains the major roadblock to treatment of many central nervous system diseases. At the same time, many central nervous system diseases are associated with disruption of the blood-brain barrier that can lead to changes in permeability, modulation of immune cell transport, and trafficking of pathogens into the brain. Therefore, advances in our understanding of the structure and function of the blood-brain barrier are key to developing effective treatments for a wide range of central nervous system diseases. Over the past 10 years it has become recognized that the blood-brain barrier is a complex, dynamic system that involves biomechanical and biochemical signaling between the vascular system and the brain. Here we reconstruct the structure, function, and transport properties of the blood-brain barrier from an engineering perspective. New insight into the physics of the blood-brain barrier could ultimately lead to clinical advances in the treatment of central nervous system diseases.
The ability to investigate the electrophysiological properties of individual cells in acute brain tissue led to the discovery that many glial cells have the capacity to respond rapidly to neuronal activity. In particular, a distinct class of neuroglial cells known as NG2 cells, which exhibit many of the properties that have been described for glial subtypes such as complex cells, polydendrocytes, synantocytes and GluR cells, express ionotropic receptors for glutamate and GABA. In both gray and white matter, NG2 cells form direct synaptic junctions with axons, which enable transient activation of these receptors. Electrophysiological analyses have shown that these neuron-glia synapses exhibit all the hallmarks of ‘classical’ neuron-neuron synapses, including rapid activation, quantized responses, facilitation and depression, and presynaptic inhibition. Electron microscopy indicates that axons form morphologically distinct junctions at discrete sites along processes of NG2 cells, suggesting that NG2 cells are an overt target of axonal projections. AMPA receptors expressed by NG2 cells exhibit varying degrees of Ca(2+) permeability, depending on the brain region and stage of development, and in white matter NG2 cells have also been shown to express functional NMDA receptors. Ca(2+) influx through AMPA receptors following repetitive stimulation can trigger long term potentiation of synaptic currents in NG2 cells. The expression of receptors with significant Ca(2+) permeability may increase the susceptibility of NG2 cells to excitotoxic injury. Future studies using transgenic mice in which expression of receptors can be manipulated selectively in NG2 cells have to define the functions of this enigmatic neuron-glia signaling in the normal and diseased CNS.
Caged neurotransmitters are useful photochemical tools for selective stimulation of synapses and other transmitter receptors. Before illumination, the caged compound is biologically inert. Photolysis breaks a covalent bond, liberating the caged neurotransmitter. Release can be rapid, so the resultant synaptic stimulation can mimic a natural one (Matsuzaki et al., 2001). Uncaging does not replace traditional electrode stimulation; rather, it is a useful complement to it for several reasons: (1) a single transmitter is normally photoreleased, (2) stimulation of voltage-gated ion channels is not required for transmitter release, (3) receptors at many synapses can be activated simultaneously according to the area (or volume) of illumination, (4) unnatural amino acids can be photoreleased, and (5) subquantal or supraquantal neurotransmitter release is feasible.
Chemical synaptic transmission provides the basis for much of the rapid signaling that occurs within neuronal networks. However, recent studies have provided compelling evidence that synapses are not used exclusively for communication between neurons. Physiological and anatomical studies indicate that a distinct class of glia known as NG2(+) cells also forms direct synaptic junctions with both glutamatergic and GABAergic neurons. Glutamatergic signaling can influence intracellular Ca(2+) levels in NG2(+) cells by activating Ca(2+) permeable AMPA receptors, and these inputs can be potentiated through high frequency stimulation. Although the significance of this highly differentiated form of communication remains to be established, these neuro-glia synapses might enable neurons to influence rapidly the behavior of this ubiquitous class of glial progenitors.
Rapid signaling between vertebrate neurons occurs primarily at synapses, intercellular junctions where quantal release of neurotransmitter triggers rapid changes in membrane conductance through activation of ionotropic receptors. Glial cells express many of these same ionotropic receptors, yet little is known about how receptors in glial cells become activated in situ. Because synapses were thought to be the sole provenance of neurons, it has been assumed that these receptors must be activated following diffusion of transmitter out of the synaptic cleft, or through nonsynaptic mechanisms such as transporter reversal. Two recent reports show that a ubiquitous class of progenitors that express the proteoglycan NG2 (NG2 cells) engage in rapid signaling with glutamatergic and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)ergic neurons through direct neuron-glia synapses. Quantal release of transmitter from neurons at these sites triggers rapid activation of aminomethylisoxazole propionic acid (AMPA) or GABA(A) receptors in NG2 cells. These currents exhibit properties consistent with direct rather than spillover-mediated transmission, and electron micrographic analyses indicate that nerve terminals containing clusters of synaptic vesicles form discrete junctions with NG2 cell processes. Although activation of AMPA or GABA(A) receptors depolarize NG2 cells, these receptors are more likely to serve as routes for ion flux rather than as current sources for depolarization, because the amplitudes of the synaptic transients are small and the resting membrane potential of NG2 cells is highly negative. The ability of both glutamate and GABA to influence the morphology, physiology, and development of NG2 cells in vitro suggests that this rapid form of signaling may play important roles in adapting the behavior of these cells to the needs of surrounding neurons in vivo.
Glutamate transporters (GluTs) prevent the accumulation of glutamate and influence the occupancy of receptors at synapses. The ability of extrasynaptic NMDA receptors and metabotropic glutamate receptors to participate in signaling is tightly regulated by GluT activity. Astrocytes express the highest density of GluTs and dominate clearance away from these receptors; synapses that are not associated with astrocyte processes experience greater mGluR activation and can be exposed to glutamate released at adjacent synapses. Although less abundant, neuronal transporters residing in the postsynaptic membrane can also shield receptors from the glutamate that is released. The diversity in synaptic morphology suggests a correspondingly rich diversity of GluT function in excitatory transmission.
Antibodies against the chondroitin sulfate proteoglycan NG2 label a subpopulation of glial cells within the CNS, which have a small cell body and thin radiating processes. Physiological recordings from these small cells in acute brain slices have revealed that they possess unique properties, suggesting that they may comprise a class of glial cells distinct from astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, or microglia. NG2-expressing glial cells (abbreviated as “NG2 cells” here) have a moderate input resistance and are not dye- or tracer-coupled to adjacent cells. They express voltage-gated Na+, K+ and Ca2+ conductances, though they do not exhibit regenerative Na+ or Ca2+ action potentials due to the much larger K+ conductances present. In addition to voltage-gated conductances, they express receptors for various neurotransmitters. In the hippocampus, AMPA and GABAA receptors on these cells are activated by release of transmitter from neurons at defined synaptic junctions that are formed with CA3 pyramidal neurons and GABAergic interneurons. These rapid forms of neuron-glial communication may regulate the proliferation rate of NG2 cells or their development into mature oligodendrocytes. These depolarizing inputs may also trigger the release of neuroactive substances from NG2 cells, providing feedback regulation of signaling at neuronal synapses. Although the presence of Ca2+ permeable AMPA receptors provides a pathway to link neuronal activity to Ca2+ dependent processes within the NG2 cells, these receptors also put these cells at risk for glutamate-associated excitotoxicity. This vulnerability to the sustained elevation of glutamate may underlie ischemic induced damage to white matter tracts and contribute to cerebral palsy in premature infants.