Pity the lowly astrocyte, the most common cell in the human nervous system. Long considered to be little more than putty in the brain and spinal cord, the star-shaped astrocyte has found new respect among neuroscientists who have begun to recognize its many functions in the brain, not to mention its role in a range of disorders of the central nervous system.
Now, writing in the May 22 issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology, a group led by University of Wisconsin-Madison stem cell researcher Su-Chun Zhang reports it has been able to direct embryonic and induced human stem cells to become astrocytes in the lab dish.
The ability to make large, uniform batches of astrocytes, explains Zhang, opens a new avenue to more fully understanding the functional roles of the brain's most commonplace cell, as well as its involvement in a host of central nervous system disorders ranging from headaches to dementia. What's more, the ability to culture the cells gives researchers a powerful tool to devise new therapies and drugs for neurological disorders.