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New research published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry finds that astrocytes, the cells that make the background of the brain and support neurons, might be behind mental disorders such as depression and schizophrenia. The research was conducted by a Portuguese team from the University of Minho.
The study shows how a simple reduction of astrocytes in the prefrontal cortex (linked to cognition) can kill its neurons and lead to the cognitive deficits that characterize several mental diseases. Malfunctioning astrocytes have been found in psychiatric patients before, however, it was not clear if they were a cause or a consequence of the disease.
"This is the first time that cognitive deficits of a psychiatric illness can be mimicked by solely affecting astrocytes," says the team leader, João Filipe Oliveira, in a release, "opening a whole new range of possibilities, both on the causes and potential treatments for these disorders."
The last decade has seen ideas on astrocytes change radically. Science now knows they perform highly complex jobs, including several previously associated with neurons. Their role in mental disorders is only now being explored in depth.
Oliveira and colleagues conducted their research by injecting a toxin which kills astrocytes specifically in a small region at injection sites. They injected this into the prefrontal cortex of rats. Those injected with the toxin developed cognitive deficits typical of mental disorders affected by the prefrontal cortex. Surprisingly, the researchers also found that neurons in the injected area, over time, also began to die.
The Portuguese study seems to show that astrocyte breakdown is a primordial cause for many disorders rather than a result of them.
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