‘Aberrant Astrocytes’ Kill Motor Neurons in Rats

by Amy Madsen on Thu, 2011-10-27 05:00

A subtype of astrocytes — cells that normally protect motor neurons — causes 'unprecedented toxicity' to motor neurons in a rat model of familial ALS

Article Highlights:
  • Scientists have identified an astrocyte subtype, dubbed "AbA" for aberrant astrocytes, that cause motor neuron degeneration in a rat model of familial ALS, and which may be a potential target for therapy in this disease.
  • The findings add to the growing body of evidence implicating astrocytes as key contributors to the ALS disease process.

A multinational team of scientists has identified a specific type of astrocyte that behaves abnormally, causing degeneration and death in motor neurons in rats with a disease resembling familial SOD1-related ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease).

The astrocyctes have been named “aberrant astrocytes,” or AbA cells, by the research team, which has members from several institutions in Montevideo, Uruguay, and Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore.

"We believe these AbA cells are helping drive the progression of ALS," Joe Beckman, a professor of biochemistry at Oregon State University, said in a press release.

The researchers found that the cells are present in large numbers during disease progression, and that they typically reside close to motor neurons (nerve cells that control muscles). In addition, they noted an "unprecedented toxicity" to motor neurons via the release of toxic factors that prohibit growth or survival of the muscle-controlling cells.

The findings were reported online Oct. 18, 2001, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (an abstract of the full paper is available online).

Astrocytes key players in ALS?

The findings add to a growing body of evidence that astrocytes play a key role in the ALS disease process. An MDA-supported research team recently demonstrated in rats that astrocytes carrying an SOD1 mutation cause motor neurons to deteriorate and die and lead to signs of motor neuron disease in the rats.

Another team of researchers recently showed that human astrocytes taken from the spinal cords of people with sporadic or familial ALS also can kill motor neurons in culture.

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