Scientists use stem cells to cook up a batch of astrocytes, the brain's workhorses

If neurons are the rock stars of the human brain, then astrocytes are the roadies. There are more of these behind-the-scenes workers than there are neurons, but it's the often-overlooked astrocytes that work behind the scenes to keep things going smoothly--from helping to regulate blood flow to soaking up excess chemicals produced by interacting neurons to controlling the blood-brain barrier. Where would we be without our friends the astrocytes? Well, a group of University of Wisconsin-Madison stem cell researchers hope to find out the answer to that an other questions by creating huge batches of astrocytes via embryonic and induced human stem cells.

According to researcher Su-Chun Zhang, this new ability to cook up a big batch of astrocytes is a recipe to understanding the roles played by the brain's most prevalent cell and how it might be involved in nervous system disorders from dementia to headaches. "Not a lot of attention has been paid to these cells because human astrocytes have been hard to get," Zhang said in a news release. "But we can make billions or trillions of them from a single stem cell."

Ultimately, the ability to create astrocytes will be more than simple academic curiosity. Someday, Zhang said, specially prepared astrocytes could be among the first cells transplanted for treatment of Lou Gehrig's disease, since the neurons affected by the disease--also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis--are swathed in astrocytes.

"One idea is that it may be possible to rescue motor neurons by putting normal, healthy astrocytes in the brain," Zhang said in a statement. "These cells are really useful as a therapeutic target."

- read the news release from the University of Wisconsin-Madison
- MSNBC filed this report
- and read the abstract in Nature Biotechnology