Astroglial excitability and gliotransmission: An appraisal of Ca2+ as a signaling route

Abstract – Astroglial cells, due to their passive electrical properties, were long considered subservient to neurons and to merely provide the framework and metabolic support of the brain. Although astrocytes do play such structural and housekeeping roles in the brain, these glial cells also contribute to the brain’s computational power and behavioural output. These more active functions are endowed by the Ca2+-based excitability displayed by astrocytes. An increase in cytosolic Ca2+ levels in astrocytes can lead to the release of signalling molecules, a process termed gliotransmission, via the process of regulated exocytosis. Dynamic components of astrocytic exocytosis include the vesicular-plasma membrane secretory machinery, as well as the vesicular traffic, which is governed not only by general cytoskeletal elements but also by astrocyte-specific IFs (intermediate filaments). Gliotransmitters released into the ECS (extracellular space) can exert their actions on neighbouring neurons, to modulate synaptic transmission and plasticity, and to affect behaviour by modulating the sleep homoeostat. Besides these novel physiological roles, astrocytic Ca2+ dynamics, Ca2+-dependent gliotransmission and astrocyte-neuron signalling have been also implicated in brain disorders, such as epilepsy. The aim of this review is to highlight the newer findings concerning Ca2+ signalling in astrocytes and exocytotic gliotransmission. For this we report on Ca2+ sources and sinks that are necessary and sufficient for regulating the exocytotic release of gliotransmitters and discuss secretory machinery, secretory vesicles and vesicle mobility regulation. Finally, we consider the exocytotic gliotransmission in the modulation of synaptic transmission and plasticity, as well as the astrocytic contribution to sleep behaviour and epilepsy.