Recent research has changed the perception of glia from being no more than silent supportive cells of neurons to being dynamic partners participating in brain metabolism and communication between neurons. This discovery of new glial functions coincides with growing evidence of the involvement of glia in the neuropathology of mood disorders. Unanticipated reductions in the density and number of glial cells are reported in fronto-limbic brain regions in major depression and bipolar illness. Moreover, age-dependent decreases in the density of glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) - immunoreactive astrocytes and levels of GFAP protein are observed in the prefrontal cortex of younger depressed subjects. Since astrocytes participate in the uptake, metabolism and recycling of glutamate, we hypothesize that an astrocytic deficit may account for the alterations in glutamate/GABA neurotransmission in depression. Reductions in the density and ultrastructure of oligodendrocytes are also detected in the prefrontal cortex and amygdala in depression. Pathological changes in oligodendrocytes may be relevant to the disruption of white matter tracts in mood disorders reported by diffusion tensor imaging. Factors such as stress, excess of glucocorticoids, altered gene expression of neurotrophic factors and glial transporters, and changes in extracellular levels of neurotransmitters released by neurons may modify glial cell number and affect the neurophysiology of depression. Therefore, we will explore the role of these events in the possible alteration of glial number and activity, and the capacity of glia as a promising new target for therapeutic medications. Finally, we will consider the temporal relationship between glial and neuronal cell pathology in depression.
Keywords: Astrocytes, Glutamate neurotransmission, NMDA receptors, neurotrophic factors, major depressive disorders
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