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Potential Key to Brain Blood-Flow Disorders Explored by Scientists

e about half the brain, had not been thought to play an active role in brain processes, and were thought to serve as the “glue” of the brain. One end of an individual astrocyte forms extensive contacts with thousands of neurons, while the other end surrounds and encases blood vessels. In this way, astrocytes are capable of integrating information from a large number of neurons and translating this information into distinct physiological outcomes, including modulation of blood flow.

In order to try and find out how neurons use astrocytes to communicate rapidly to blood vessels, the team of scientists at the University of Vermont employed highly advanced technologies to observe the movement of ions between the neuron, astrocyte and blood vessel. Using fluorescent dyes and high resolution microscopy, they detected a calcium wave that moves through the astrocyte from points of contacts with active neurons to the parts – called “endfeet” – which encase the blood vessels.

The information from the active neuron is thus encoded as a calcium signal in the astrocyte. This increase in calcium at the endfeet activates a calcium-sensitive protein, known as a potassium (BK) channel, which permits potassium ions to pour out of the astrocytes onto the adjacent muscle cells in the brain artery.

The authors showed that removing the BK channels, either by drugs or genetically, significantly reduced the dilation of the blood vessel in response to brain activity; hence the astrocytic BK channel is an important participant in the signaling mechanism.

The teams next needed to uncover how the muscle cells responsible for determining blood flow in the blood vessel sense an increase in external potassium. To do this, Nelson and his colleagues focused on a potassium-sensitive protein expressed in smooth muscle cells called the inward rectifier potassium channel, which forms the contractile elements of blood vessels. When there is a small eleva
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