Part of the book: Neurodegenerative Diseases
In recent decades, astrocytes have gained ground in their protagonist role at the synapses, challenging the old-historic idea that neurons are the unique functional units in the nervous system. Although for a long time considered merely supportive elements, astrocytes are now recognized as a source of gliotransmitter release that regulates synaptic transmission and plasticity. Despite the initial evidence that supported gliotransmission depends on intracellular Ca2+-mediated vesicular release, recent data indicate that hemichannels may constitute an alternative non-vesicular route for gliotransmitter efflux. These channels are plasma membrane channels formed by the oligomerization of six connexins around a central pore. Hemichannels are permeable to ions and signaling molecules—such as ATP, glutamate, and Ca2+—constituting a pathway of diffusional interchange between the cytoplasm and the extracellular milieu. Connexin 43 is the main hemichannel-forming protein in astrocytes and is highly regulated under physiological and pathological conditions. In this chapter, the available data supporting the idea that hemichannels are chief components in tuning the synaptic gain in either resting or stimulated conditions is discussed.
Part of the book: Astrocytes