"Astrocytes are a crucial cell type in the brain, and just as abundant as neurons. They help to nourish and support neuronal networks, but this goes badly wrong in dementias. This programme will identify exactly what goes wrong in these cells, and how they can be altered to protect the brain from neurodegenerative disease." Giles Hardingham
UK DRI Centre Director
An expert in cell signalling, Prof Giles Hardingham is The City of Edinburgh Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Edinburgh. Giles obtained his PhD from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in 1998, subsequently trained as an MRC postdoctoral researcher, before moving to the University of Edinburgh in 2002 as a Royal Society University Research Fellow. He became Professor of Molecular Neurobiology and a MRC Senior Research Fellow in 2010, and was elected Fellow of The Academy of Medical Sciences and the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 2018. As Centre Director of the UK DRI at Edinburgh, he will oversee an exciting programme of research and lead work investigating astrocytes in neurodegenerative diseases.
1. At a glance
A ‘starring’ role for astrocytes in dementia?
Prof Giles Hardingham is studying star-shaped cells called astrocytes to better understand their role in helping maintain a healthy brain over many decades – and how they contribute to neurodegenerative diseases. Boosting our understanding of the biology and function of these previously-overlooked immune cells could lead to new ways to treat dementia in the future.
Neurons receive the most attention out of all brain cell types and are the spotlight of dementia research around the world – particularly as their death is the hallmark of neurodegenerative diseases. However, they don’t work alone – they are one component of a complex wider brain network that also includes billions of other cells, including astrocytes.
Over the past few decades, scientists have started to uncover a number of crucial roles for astrocytes – not only do they provide physical structure to the brain and vital support to neurons but are also key players in the immune system, help maintain brain blood vessels (blood-brain-barrier), provide energy to neurons, and also have a role in waste clearance. Increasing our knowledge about the biology of these cells, how they contribute to the wider brain system and identifying key changes involved in neurodegenerative diseases will open the door for the development of effective new therapies.
2. Scientific goals
This UK DRI programme, led by Prof Giles Hardingham, is focussing on astrocyte interactions with neurons and microglia in health and disease, the mechanisms of astrocyte-mediated homeostatic support, as well as the consequences of its disruption in neurodegenerative disorders, and their potential as a target for disease-modifying therapies.
There is a need to fully profile the astrocytic changes in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other neurodegenerative disorders, to pinpoint any functional deficits that arise, and the gene expression profiles that underlie them. Equally important is to understand how astrocytes tune their homeostatic capacity to help maintain brain health over many decades. Their ability to repress core pathological pathways common to many disorders – such as bioenergetic stress, oxidative stress, glutamate dyshomeostasis – suggests that targeting key regulators of these processes may have applicability across different diseases. Exploiting this knowledge to manipulate the astrocytic phenotype to boost their homeostatic support, and alter the trajectory in models of neurodegenerative disease, is an aim of the programme.
Generating hypotheses as to how the astrocytic phenotype is altered in vivo as a function of other cell types in the brain as well as the extracellular inflammatory milieu poses challenges due to the difficulty of modelling and interrogating the system. To aid this, the team has developed an in vitro system where neurogliovascular cell types from different species (e.g. rat, mouse, human) are maintained alone or in co-culture, followed by RNA-seq and in silico read separation according to species. This has led to the identification of gene networks and signals controlling astrocytic phenotype, validated in vivo, which the team plan to manipulate in vivo to test their effect on the neurodegenerative disease trajectory.
Downstream of dysfunctional astrocytes, one process that loss of homeostasis may converge on is excitotoxic synapse loss. Deficits in glutamate uptake capacity due to transporter hypoexpression or bioenergetic deficits associated with neurodegenerative disorders lead to its extracellular accumulation and chronic activation of NMDAR-mediated Ca2+ influx,. The group has already shown that excitotoxicity involves Mcu-mediated mitochondrial Ca2+ overload and also the coupling of the NMDAR to toxic NO production via PSD-95 and the C-terminal domain (CTD) specifically of GluN2B. They have the tools to genetically dissect the role of the GluN2B CTD and of Mcu in synapse loss in AD and other neurodegenerative disease models.
Main objectives and research goals:
1. To determine how astrocytic properties are altered in health and in neurodegenerative disease.
2. To assess the impact of modulating astrocyte properties.
3. To assess the impact of neuron-modifying strategies for reducing excitatory synaptotoxicity.
4. To create and use platforms to probing blood-brain-barrier function and inflammatory signal transduction across it.
3. Team members
Dr Jing Qiu (Emerging Leader)
Dr Owen Dando (Staff Scientist)
Dr Paul Baxter (Postdoctoral Researcher)
Dr Xin He (Postdoctoral Researcher)
Dr Juraj Koudelka (Postdoctoral Researcher)
Dr Mosi Li (Postdoctoral Researcher)
Dr Zoeb Jivaji (Clinical Consultant)
Deepali Vasoya (Bioinformatician)
Mehreen Mohammad (Senior Technician)
Lynsey Dunsmore (Technician)
Jamie Loan (PhD Student)
Kirsty Haddow (PhD Student)
Ya Yin Chang (PhD Student, joint with Dr Patricio Opazo)
Kyle Wardlaw (PhD Student)
Within UK DRI:
- Prof Paul Matthews, UK DRI at Imperial
- Dr Nir Grossman, UK DRI at Imperial
- Prof Tara Spires-Jones, UK DRI at Edinburgh
- Dr Barry McColl, UK DRI at Edinburgh
- Prof Siddarthan Chandran, University of Edinburgh
Beyond UK DRI:
- Dr Clare Pridans, University of Edinburgh
- Prof Karen Horsburgh, University of Edinburgh
- Prof Peter Kind, University of Edinburgh
- Prof David Wyllie, University of Edinburgh
- Dr Noboru Komiyama, University of Edinburgh
- Prof Seth Grant, University of Edinburgh
Synaptic signalling, Ca2+ signalling, excitotoxicity, astrocyte biology, microglial biology, transcriptional regulation, signal transduction
Chemogenetics (DREADDs), TRAP-seq, (single cell) RNA-seq, RNAscope, Live cell imaging, electrophysiology, multiplex custom ELISA plates, mass spectrometry
7. Key publications
Jiwaji, Z., Tiwari, S.S., Aviles-Reyes, R.X., Hooley, M., Hampton, D., Torvell, M., Johnson, D.A., McQueen, J., Baxter, P., Sabari-Sankar, K., Qiu, J., He, X., Fowler, J., Febery, J., Gregory, J., Rose, J., Tulloch, J., Loan, J., Story, D., McDade, K., Smith, A.M., Greer, P., Ball, M., Kind, P.C., Matthews, P.M., Smith, C., Dando, O., Spires-Jones, T.L., Johnson, J.A., Chandran, S., and Hardingham, G.E. (2022). Reactive astrocytes acquire neuroprotective as well as deleterious signatures in response to Tau and Aß pathology. Nature Communications 13, 135.
Baxter, P., Dando, O., K, E., He, X., McKay, S., Hardingham, G.E.*, and Qiu, J.* (2021). Microglial identity and inflammatory responses are controlled by the combined effects of neurons and astrocytes. Cell Reports 34, 108882. * Co-corresponding.
Hardingham, G.E., Pruunsild, P., Greenberg, M.E., and Bading, H. (2018). Activity-dependent gene expression in mice and humans: implications for evolution of cognitive abilities. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 19(1), p9-15.
McKay, S., Ryan, T.J., McQueen, J., Marwick, K., Hasel, P., Wyllie, D.J.A., Grant, S.G.N., O'Dell, T., Hardingham, G.E.* and Komiyama, N.H*. (2018). Developmental subunit switch of NMDARs proceeds independently of CaMKII-GluN2B coupling and distinct 2A/2B C-termini-directed events. Cells Reports, 25(4), P841-851. *Co-corresponding.
Qiu, J., Dando, O., Baxter, P., Hasel, P., Heron, S., Simpson, T.I., and Hardingham, G.E. (2018). Mixed species RNA-seq for elucidating non cell-autonomous gene regulation. Nature Protocols 13(10) 2176-2199.
Hasel, P., Dando, O., Jiwaji, Z., Todd, A., Heron, S., Markus, N.M., Baxter, P., McQueen, J., Hampton, D., McKay, S., Tiwari, S., Torvell, M., Chandran, S., Wyllie, D.J.A., Simpson, T.I., and Hardingham, G.E. (2017). Neurons and neuronal activity control gene expression in astrocytes to regulate their development and metabolic function. Nature Communications. 8 15132-48.
McQueen, J., Ryan, T.J., McKay, S., Marwick, K., Carpanini, S.M., Wishart, T.M., Gillingwater, T.H., Manson, J.C., Wyllie, D.J.A., Grant, S.G.N., McColl, B., Komiyama, N.K., and Hardingham, G.E. (2017). Pro-death NMDA receptor signaling is promoted by the GluN2B C-terminus independently of DAPK1. ELife 6 pii: e17161