Expert to Highlight Role of the Astrocyte, the Forgotten Brain Cell

June 06, 2006

Neuroscientist Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., Ph.D., will discuss her work on oft-overlooked brain cells known as astrocytes as part of a lecture series highlighting biological and biomedical research at the University of Rochester.

Nedergaard will discuss newly discovered roles for astrocytes at 4 p.m. Friday, June 9, in the Case Methods Room (Room 1-9576) at the Medical Center. It’s the latest installment of the “Second Friday Science Social” lecture series geared mainly to faculty, staff and students at the University, though the general public is welcome as well. The lectures are free. More information is available at http://www.urmc.rochester.edu/sss/.

Through a remarkable series of publications in journals such as Nature Medicine and Nature Neuroscience, Nedergaard has brought the astrocyte from obscurity to prominence. For years the star-shaped cells were relegated to the status of helper to brain cells known as neurons, which rely on astrocytes to bring nutrients and to clean up after them. Though astrocytes are present in vastly greater numbers than neurons – there are approximately 10 times as many astrocytes as neurons in the human brain – most researchers think of neurons when they think of sophisticated brain activity.

But Nedergaard, a professor in the Department of Neurosurgery, has scuttled the notion that astrocytes are merely support cells for neurons. More than a decade ago she discovered that astrocytes send signals to the neurons, and the neurons respond. Since then she has made a series of findings that neurons and astrocytes talk back and forth, indicating that astrocytes are full partners in the basic working of the brain. She has found evidence that the cells are central to diseases like epilepsy, spinal cord injury, and maybe even Alzheimer’s disease and migraine headaches.

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