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Astrocytes, Noradrenaline, α1-Adrenoreceptors, and Neuromodulation: Evidence and Unanswered Questions

  • Wahis, Jérôme1, 2, 3
  • Holt, Matthew G.1, 2, 3
  • 1 Laboratory of Glia Biology, VIB-KU Leuven Center for Brain and Disease Research, Leuven , (Belgium)
  • 2 Department of Neurosciences, KU Leuven, Leuven , (Belgium)
  • 3 Leuven Brain Institute, Leuven , (Belgium)
Published Article
Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience
Frontiers Media SA
Publication Date
Feb 25, 2021
DOI: 10.3389/fncel.2021.645691
  • Neuroscience
  • Review


Noradrenaline is a major neuromodulator in the central nervous system (CNS). It is released from varicosities on neuronal efferents, which originate principally from the main noradrenergic nuclei of the brain – the locus coeruleus – and spread throughout the parenchyma. Noradrenaline is released in response to various stimuli and has complex physiological effects, in large part due to the wide diversity of noradrenergic receptors expressed in the brain, which trigger diverse signaling pathways. In general, however, its main effect on CNS function appears to be to increase arousal state. Although the effects of noradrenaline have been researched extensively, the majority of studies have assumed that noradrenaline exerts its effects by acting directly on neurons. However, neurons are not the only cells in the CNS expressing noradrenaline receptors. Astrocytes are responsive to a range of neuromodulators – including noradrenaline. In fact, noradrenaline evokes robust calcium transients in astrocytes across brain regions, through activation of α1-adrenoreceptors. Crucially, astrocytes ensheath neurons at synapses and are known to modulate synaptic activity. Hence, astrocytes are in a key position to relay, or amplify, the effects of noradrenaline on neurons, most notably by modulating inhibitory transmission. Based on a critical appraisal of the current literature, we use this review to argue that a better understanding of astrocyte-mediated noradrenaline signaling is therefore essential, if we are ever to fully understand CNS function. We discuss the emerging concept of astrocyte heterogeneity and speculate on how this might impact the noradrenergic modulation of neuronal circuits. Finally, we outline possible experimental strategies to clearly delineate the role(s) of astrocytes in noradrenergic signaling, and neuromodulation in general, highlighting the urgent need for more specific and flexible experimental tools.

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