Posts Tagged ‘astrocyte’

Illustration of how pH imbalance inside endosomes may contribute to Alzheimer’s disease

Johns Hopkins Medicine scientists say they have found new evidence in lab-grown mouse brain cells, called astrocytes, that one root of Alzheimer’s disease may be a simple imbalance in acid-alkaline—or pH—chemistry inside endosomes, the nutrient and chemical cargo shuttles in cells.

Astrocytes work to clear so-called amyloid beta proteins from the spaces between neurons, but decades of evidence has shown that if the clearing process goes awry, amyloid proteins pile up around neurons, leading to the characteristic amyloid plaques and nerve cell degeneration that are the hallmarks of memory-destroying Alzheimer’s disease.

The new study, described online June 26 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also reports that the scientists gave drugs called histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors to pH-imbalanced mice cells engineered with a common Alzheimer’s gene variant. The experiment successfully reversed the pH problem and improved the capacity for amyloid beta clearance.

HDAC inhibitors are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use in people with certain types of blood cancers, but not in people with Alzheimer’s. They cautioned that most HDAC inhibitors cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, a significant challenge to the direct use of the drugs for brain disorders. The scientists say they are planning additional experiments to see if HDAC inhibitors have a similar effect in lab-grown astrocytes from Alzheimer’s patients, and that there is the potential to design HDAC inhibitors that can cross the barrier.

However, the scientists caution that even before those experiments can happen, far more research is needed to verify and explain the precise relationship between amyloid proteins and Alzheimer’s disease, which affects an estimated 50 million people worldwide. To date, there is no cure and no drugs that can predictably or demonstrably prevent or reverse Alzheimer’s disease symptoms.

“By the time Alzheimer’s disease is diagnosed, most of the neurological damage is done, and it’s likely too late to reverse the disease’s progression,” says Rajini Rao, Ph.D., professor of physiology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “That’s why we need to focus on the earliest pathological symptoms or markers of Alzheimer’s disease, and we know that the biology and chemistry of endosomes is an important factor long before cognitive decline sets in.”

Nearly 20 years ago, scientists at Johns Hopkins and New York University discovered that endosomes, circular compartments that ferry cargo within cells, are larger and far more abundant in brain cells of people destined to develop Alzheimer’s disease. This hinted at an underlying problem with endosomes that could lead to an accumulation of amyloid protein in spaces around neurons, says Rao.

To shuttle their cargo from place to place, endosomes use chaperones—proteins that bind to specific cargo and bring them back and forth from the cell’s surface. Whether and how well this binding occurs depends on the proper pH level inside the endosome, a delicate balance of acidity and alkalinity, or acid and base, that makes endosomes float to the surface and slip back down into the cell.

Embedded in the endosome membrane are proteins that shuttle charged hydrogen atoms, known as protons, in and out of endosomes. The amount of protons inside the endosome determines its pH.

When fluids in the endosome become too acidic, the cargo is trapped within the endosome deep inside the cell. When the endosome contents are more alkaline, the cargo lingers at the cell’s surface for too long.

To help determine whether such pH imbalances occur in Alzheimer’s disease, Johns Hopkins graduate student Hari Prasad scoured scientific studies of Alzheimer’s disease looking for genes that were dialed down in diseased brains compared with normal ones. Comparing a dataset of 15 brains of Alzheimer’s disease patients with 12 normal ones, he found that 10 of the 100 most frequently down-regulated genes were related to the proton flow in the cell.

In another set of brain tissue samples from 96 people with Alzheimer’s disease and 82 without it, gene expression of the proton shuttle in endosomes, known as NHE6, was approximately 50 percent lower in people with Alzheimer’s disease compared with those with normal brains. In cells grown from people with Alzheimer’s disease and in mouse astrocytes engineered to carry a human Alzheimer’s disease gene variant, the amount of NHE6 was about half the amount found in normal cells.

To measure the pH balance within endosomes without breaking open the astrocyte, Prasad and Rao used pH sensitive probes that are absorbed by endosomes and emit light based on pH levels. They found that mouse cell lines containing the Alzheimer’s disease gene variant had more acidic endosomes (average of 5.37 pH) than cell lines without the gene variant (average of 6.21 pH).

“Without properly functioning NHE6, endosomes become too acidic and linger inside astrocytes, avoiding their duties to clear amyloid beta proteins,” says Rao.

While it’s likely that changes in NHE6 happen over time in people who develop sporadic Alzheimer’s disease, people who have inherited mutations in NHE6 develop what’s known as Christianson syndrome in infancy and have rapid brain degeneration.

Prasad and Rao also found that a protein called LRP1, which picks up amyloid beta proteins outside the astrocyte and delivers them to endosomes, was half as abundant on the surface of lab grown mouse astrocytes engineered with a human gene variant called APOE4, commonly linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

Looking for ways to restore the function of NHE6, Prasad searched databases of yeast studies to find that HDAC inhibitors tend to increase expression of the NHE6 gene in yeast. This gene is very similar across species, including flies, mice and humans.

Prasad and Rao tested nine types of HDAC inhibitors on cell cultures of mouse astrocytes engineered with the APOE4 gene variant. Broad-spectrum HDAC inhibitors increased NHE6 expression to levels associated with mouse astrocytes that did not have the Alzheimer’s gene variant. They also found that HDAC inhibitors corrected the pH imbalance inside endosomes and restored LRP1 to the astrocyte surface, resulting in efficient clearance of amyloid beta protein.

More information: Hari Prasad et al. Amyloid clearance defect in ApoE4 astrocytes is reversed by epigenetic correction of endosomal pH, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1801612115


The majority of the cells in the brain are no neurons, but Glia (from “glue”) cells, that support the structure and function of the brain. Astrocytes (“start cells”) are star-shaped glial cells providing many supportive functions for the neurons surrounding them, such as the provision of nutrients and the regulation of their chemical environment. Newer studies showed that astrocytes also monitor and modulate neuronal activity. For example, these studies have shown that astrocytes are necessary for the ability of neurons to change the strength of the connections between them, the process underlying learning and memory, and indeed astrocytes are also necessary for normal cognitive function. However, it is still unknown whether astrocytic activity is only necessary, or is it may also be sufficient to induce synaptic potentiation and enhance cognitive performance.

In a new study published in Cell, two graduate students, Adar Adamsky and Adi Kol, from Inbal Goshen’s lab, employed chemogenetic and optogenetic tools that allow specific activation of astrocytes in behaving mice, to explore their role in synaptic activity and memory performance. They found that astrocytic activation in the hippocampus, a brain region that plays an important role in memory acquisition and consolidation, potentiated the synaptic connections in this region, measured in brain slices. Moreover, in the intact brain, astrocytic activation enhanced hippocampal neuronal activity in a task-dependent way: i.e. only during when it was combined with memory acquisition, but not when mice were at their home cage with no meaningful stimuli. The ability of astrocytes to increase neuronal activity during memory acquisition had a significant effect on cognitive function: Specifically, astrocytic activation during learning resulted in enhanced memory in two memory tests. In contrast, direct neuronal activation in the hippocampus induced a non-selective increase in activity (during learning or in the home cage), and thus resulted in drastic memory impairment.

The results suggest that the memory enhancement induced by astrocytic activation during learning is not simply a result of a general increase in hippocampal neuronal activity. Rather, the astrocytes, which sense and respond to changes in the surrounding neuronal activity, can detect and specifically enhance only the neuronal activity involved in learning, without affecting the general activity. This may explain why general astrocytic activation improves memory performance, whereas a similar activation of neurons impairs it.

Memory is not a binary process (remember/don’t remember); the strength of a memory can vary greatly, either for the same memory or between different memories. Here, we show that activating astrocytes in mice with intact cognition improves their memory performance. This finding has important clinical implications for cognitive augmentation treatments. Furthermore, the ability of astrocytes to strengthen neuronal communication and improve memory performance supports the claim that astrocytes are able to take an active part in the neuronal processes underlying cognitive function. This perspective expands the definition of the role of astrocytes, from passive support cells to active cells that can modulate neural activity and thus shape behavior.


A study by scientists of the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) points to a novel potential approach against Alzheimer’s disease. In studies in mice, the researchers were able to show that blocking a particular receptor located on astrocytes normalized brain function and improved memory performance. Astrocytes are star-shaped, non-neuronal cells involved in the regulation of brain activity and blood flow. The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine (JEM).

Alzheimer’s disease is a common and currently incurable brain disorder leading to dementia, whose mechanisms remain incompletely understood. The disease appears to be sustained by a combination of factors that include pathological changes in blood flow, neuroinflammation and detrimental changes in brain cell activity.

“The brain contains different types of cells including neurons and astrocytes”, explains Dr. Nicole Reichenbach, a postdoc researcher at the DZNE and first author of the paper published in JEM. “Astrocytes support brain function and shape the communication between neurons, called synaptic transmission, by releasing a variety of messenger proteins. They also provide metabolic and structural support and contribute to the regulation of blood flow in the brain.”

Glitches in network activity

Similar to neurons, astrocytes are organized into functional networks that may involve thousands of cells. “For normal brain function, it is crucial that networks of brain cells coordinate their firing rates. It’s like in a symphony orchestra where the instruments have to be correctly tuned and the musicians have to stay in synchrony in order to play the right melody”, says Professor Gabor Petzold, a research group leader at the DZNE and supervisor of the current study. “Interestingly, one of the main jobs of astrocytes is very similar to this: to keep neurons healthy and to help maintain neuronal network function. However, in Alzheimer’s disease, there is aberrant activity of these networks. Many cells are hyperactive, including neurons and astrocytes. Hence, understanding the role of astrocytes, and targeting such network dysfunctions, holds a strong potential for treating Alzheimer’s.”

Astrocyte-targeted treatment alleviated memory impairment

Petzold and colleagues tested this approach in an experimental study involving mice. Due to a genetic disposition, these rodents exhibited certain symptoms of Alzheimer’s similar to those that manifest in humans with the disease. In the brain, this included pathological deposits of proteins known as “Amyloid-beta plaques” and aberrant network activity. In addition, the mice showed impaired learning ability and memory.

In their study, the DZNE scientists targeted a cell membrane receptor called P2Y1R, which is predominately expressed by astrocytes. Previous experiments by Petzold and colleagues had revealed that activation of this receptor triggers cellular hyperactivity in mouse models of Alzheimer’s. Therefore, the researchers treated groups of mice with different P2Y1R antagonists. These chemical compounds can bind to the receptor, thus switching it off. The treatment lasted for several weeks.

“We found that long-term treatment with these drugs normalized the brain’s network activity. Furthermore, the mice’s learning ability and memory greatly improved”, Petzold says. On the other hand, in a control group of wild type mice this treatment had no significant effect on astrocyte activity. “This indicates that P2Y1R inhibition acts quite specifically. It does not dampen network activity when pathological hyperactivity is absent.”

New approaches for research and therapies?

Petzold summarizes: “This is an experimental study that is currently not directly applicable to human patients. However, our results suggest that astrocytes, as important safeguards of neuronal health and normal network function, may hold the potential for novel treatment options in Alzheimer’s disease.” In future studies, the scientists intend to identify additional novel pathways in astrocytes and other cells as potential drug targets.

Reichenbach, N., Delekate, A., Breithausen, B., Keppler, K., Poll, S., Schulte, T., . . . Petzold, G. C. (2018). P2Y1 receptor blockade normalizes network dysfunction and cognition in an Alzheimer’s disease model. The Journal of Experimental Medicine. doi:10.1084/jem.20171487