Astrocytes: Stars of the show

From the Autumn 2018 issue of Care and cure magazine, we speak with Dr Claire Garwood. She explains how star-shaped cells in the brain support neurons and how this could relate to dementia.

a star shaped red astrocyte against a black background
An astrocyte (red) grown in a dish with brain cells (green and blue).

Meeting the expert behind the study

Tell us about yourself

My name is Claire Garwood, and I am a research fellow based at the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience.

My research focuses on understanding the role that astrocytes play in the development of Alzheimer’s disease. I’m also a mum to two little girls and a keen runner.

Looking to the stars

I’ve been investigating the role of astrocytes in Alzheimer’s since my Society-funded PhD, which I completed late in 2010.

We call astrocytes the ‘stars of the brain’ because they have a starlike shape, but also because they have many important roles, including providing essential nutrients and other chemicals to neurons to ensure their survival.

As neurons are the brain cells that we need to make thoughts and send instructions to the body, this means that astrocytes are critical for brain health. You might also be surprised to learn that astrocytes actually outnumber neurons in the human brain.

We know that astrocytes change early on in Alzheimer’s, but we don’t yet have a good understanding of why these changes occur and how they contribute to the disease.

One of these changes is that astrocytes no longer respond to insulin correctly. Insulin is a hormone found naturally in the body.

It works to help glucose enter our cells so that they can make energy. We know that when the cells of the body stop responding to insulin, this can result in diabetes.

My current research project looks at what this change in insulin response means for astrocytes – how do they make energy and, critically, do they still provide support to neurons?

How astrocytes can help

I have developed a system where I grow astrocytes in a dish and give them chemicals to impair their ability to respond to insulin. These ‘impaired’ astrocytes are then grown with neurons.

Early results indicate that these astrocytes can still support neurons.

However, if we put the astrocytes under the type of stress they’d face in the brain of a person with Alzheimer’s, they stop supporting neurons.

This means that if we can help astrocytes to work properly in Alzheimer’s disease, then they will continue to support neurons and hopefully prevent them from being lost.

Next steps

In addition to this work, I am also developing a system where neurons and astrocytes can be grown together on specialised 3D structures.

It is hoped that by developing 3D culture systems, we can model the human brain more effectively in a dish.

I hope to secure a senior fellowship to develop this work further.

Discover more

Read more about Claire's research and all of our funded projects, including current and completed.

Claire's research Other projects
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