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J Comp Neurol. 2009 Sep 1;516(1):1-19. doi: 10.1002/cne.22058.

The morphology and spatial arrangement of astrocytes in the optic nerve head of the mouse.

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Massachusetts General Hospital, Department of Neurosurgery, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts 02114, USA.


We evaluated the shapes, numbers, and spatial distribution of astrocytes within the glial lamina, an astrocyte-rich region at the junction of the retina and optic nerve. A primary aim was to determine how the population of astrocytes, collectively, partitions the axonal space in this region. Astrocyte processes labeled with glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) compartmentalize ganglion cell axons into bundles, forming "glial tubes," and giving the glial architecture of the optic nerve head in transverse section a honeycomb appearance. The shapes of individual astrocytes were studied by using transgenic mice that express enhanced green fluorescent protein in isolated astrocytes (hGFAPpr-EGFP). Within the glial lamina the astrocytes were transverse in orientation, with thick, smooth primary processes emanating from a cytoplasmic expansion of the soma. Spaces between the processes of neighboring astrocytes were spatially aligned, to form the apertures through which the bundles of optic axons pass. The processes of individual astrocytes were far-reaching-they could span most of the width of the nerve-and overlapped the anatomical domains of other near and distant astrocytes. Thus, astrocytes in the glial lamina do not tile: each astrocyte participates in ensheathing approximately one-quarter of all of the axon bundles in the nerve, and each glial tube contains the processes of about nine astrocytes. This raises the mechanistic question of how, in glaucoma or other cases of nerve damage, the glial response can be confined to a circumscribed region where damage to axons has occurred.

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