Swayne and Murai Labs review recent advances in astrocyte diversity and cellular crosstalk

Research associate Dr. Leigh E. Wicki-Stordeur (Swayne Lab) and Dr. Leigh Anne Swayne recently published a review article on astrocyte-synapse interactions in Trends in Neurosciences with McGill collaborators Drs. Keith Murai and Alexandra Schober.

Astrocytes are a type of central nervous system glial cell with much richer structural and molecular complexity than the apparent “star” shape, from which their name derives. Astrocytes play crucial roles in regulating brain circuit formation and physiology, and they can be central drivers of various brain pathologies.

Astrocyte biology is a relatively new area for Dr. Swayne. Over the past few years, her lab has made several discoveries related to the stability of neuronal communication structures, called synapses. As she delved into the underlying molecular mechanisms stemming from these discoveries, Dr. Swayne soon realized she needed to know much more about astrocytes.

Buoyed by the prospect of learning new things, Dr. Swayne went on sabbatical from July to December 2021 as a visiting professor in the lab of astrocyte expert Dr. Murai at McGill University. There, Swayne worked with Dr. Murai and postdoctoral researcher (and the review article’s first author) Dr. Alexandra Schober to establish a new avenue of inquiry related to astrocyte-synapse interactions. This review article is the first fruit borne from this new collaboration.

Although recent technological advances reveal there are many different types of astrocytes, the molecular mechanisms underlying this diversity are only beginning to emerge. It also remains largely unknown if the development of astrocyte and synapse heterogeneity could be intertwined. Several lines of evidence suggest astrocyte diversity both influences and is a consequence of molecular crosstalk amongst developing astrocytes and other cell types (notably, neurons and their synapses).

The review article written by the Swayne and Murai Labs highlights studies looking into the intricacies of this molecular crosstalk. In addition, it explores research showing how astrocyte diversity and astrocyte-synapse crosstalk could influence neurological pathologies like inflammation, neurodevelopmental disorders, neurodegenerative diseases, and aging.

“The collaborative work we have planned builds on our previous discoveries related to neuronal post-synaptic structures called dendritic spines. The stability of dendritic spines is regulated by molecular crosstalk with other cells in the brain, especially astrocytes. It is now becoming clear that astrocytes exhibit remarkable diversity across and within different brain regions, as well as in aging and disease states,” Dr. Swayne says.

This new area of research for the Swayne Lab also leverages the astrocyte expertise of research associate Dr. Leigh Wicki-Stordeur, who returned to the Swayne Lab in January after working on aspects of astrocyte biology as a postdoctoral researcher at UBC for five years.

“It’s amazing to have the opportunity to work with this fantastic team,” Dr. Swayne adds. “Putting this review together with lead-author Dr. Schober, Dr. Wicki-Stordeur, and Dr. Murai sets a strong foundation for our exciting new collaboration looking at the molecular mechanisms underlying astrocyte-synapse crosstalk in brain circuitry development.” 

With her lab nearing 12 years at the Division of Medical Sciences, Dr. Swayne is excited about following the science into new areas. “Astrocytes are incredibly intriguing and key to understanding synapse stability,” she says. “I’m hoping that we can continue to build this collaboration with much-needed funding.”

L-R: Dr. Leigh E. Wicki-Stordeur (research associate, Swayne Lab) and Dr. Leigh Anne Swayne, together with Montreal-based researchers Dr. Alexandra Schober and Dr. Keith Murai, recently published a review article in Trends in Neurosciences on astrocyte diversity development and cellular crosstalk. This review is part of a new collaboration between the Swayne Lab at the University of Victoria and the Murai Lab at McGill University.