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Neurochem Int. 2004 Jul-Aug;45(2-3):191-202.

The problem of astrocyte identity.

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  • 1Neural and Vascular Biology Theme, Ordway Research Institute Inc., Center for Medical Science, 150 New Scotland Avenue, Albany, NY 12208, USA.


Astrocytes were the original neuroglia of Ramón y Cajal but after 100 years there is no satisfactory definition of what should comprise this class of cells. This essay takes a historical and philosophical approach to the question of astrocytic identity. The classic approach of identification by morphology and location are too limited to determine new members of the astrocyte population. I also critically evaluate the use of protein markers measured by immunoreactivity, as well as the newer technique of marking living cells by using promoters for these same proteins to drive reporter genes. These two latter approaches have yielded an expanded population of astrocytes with diverse functions, but also mark cells that traditionally would not be defined as astrocytes. Thus we need a combination of measures to define an astrocyte but it is not clear what this combination should be. The molecular approach, especially promoter driven fluorescent reporter genes, does have the advantage of pre marking living astrocytes for electrophysiological or imaging recordings. However, lack of sufficient understanding of the behavior of the inserted constructs has led to unclear results. This approach will no doubt be perfected with time but at present an acceptable, practical definition of what constitutes the class of astrocytes remains elusive.

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