A new study published by Associate Professor Michelle Olsen in the School of Neuroscience at Virginia Tech shows a new signaling pathway that that appears critical for the developmental maturation of astrocytes -- one of the most abundant cell types in the brain and spinal cord of mammals.

Recently published in eLife, the study – carries out with researchers from Virginia Tech and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) – shows for the first time that astrocytes are a major cell of the major central nervous system. Beforehand, scientists had checked off astrocytes as a support cell to neurons, thus giving them relatively little attention.

“Few studies have attempted to identify mechanisms which govern astrocyte maturation, which is surprising given the sheer numbers of these cells in the brain and spinal cord,” Olsen said. “This study lays a foundation for a new and exciting foundation areas of investigation into healthy mammalian brain development.

Michelle Olsen

Michelle Olsen with black shirt and dark gray background
Michelle Olsen

Furthermore, Olsen and team – which included graduate and undergraduate students from Virginia Tech and UAB -- found that astrocytes disruption of this signaling pathway impacted neuronal synaptic connections, a fundamental component of neuronal cell communication. “The pathway identified by our team may have important implications for neurodevelopmental disorders and neurological disease,” Olsen added. 

Osen’s team included lead author Leanne Holt, a graduate student who moved with Olsen from UAB to Virginia Tech, and is now at the Friedman Brain Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York; Raymundo D. Hernandez, a current doctoral student in Virginia Tech’s Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health program; Beatriz Torres Ceja, a current doctoral student in Virginia Tech’s Molecular and Cellular Biology program, and Muhannah Hossain, a recent graduate of the School of Neuroscience now working as a research assistant at the University of Virginia. 

Olsen says the study opens new questions such as: How is this pathway relevant for healthy brain development. Is it altered in certain neurodevelopmental disorders? And, is this signaling pathway --which prevails into adulthood-- important for adult healthy brain functioning?

She adds, “This is just the beginning.”