Dividing Astrocytes - Guardians of the Brain
Astrocytes are the natural guardian of neurons. If astrocytes fail to maintain a proper brain microenvironment, neurons can stop firing within minutes. When the brain cells are exposed to "stress" such as the lack of oxygen during stroke, astrocytes release detoxifying enzymes in order to prolong the survival of neurons in tough conditions. The synthesis of detoxifying enzymes is controlled by a molecule, Nrf2, which activates a powerful cellular defense mechanism. This image captures a pair of dividing astrocytes. In the image, red proteins are GFAP, the identity cards for astrocytes. Nrf2 is labeled with green. We can see thin filaments consisting of Nrf2 bound to the actin cytoskeleton. Once the cells sense "stress," a transformation of the cytoskeleton occurs, and Nrf2 moves into the nucleus to bind to the gene, producing a number of detoxifying enzymes. This is how astrocytes offer powerful protection to neurons in the brain. My research at UIC focuses on the activation of Nrf2 in the brain by pharmaceuticals. This work was performed in the Laboratory for Product and Process Design directed by Dr. Andreas Linninger, where therapies are being developed to activate the defense mechanisms in astrocytes for curing neurological disorders.