The role of astrocytes in the brain vascular response to neural activity

Sufficient blood flow to the brain is critical for normal brain function. In response to increased brain activity, a local increase in blood flow to the active area is required to supply extra oxygen and glucose. This increase in blood flow is controlled by signaling molecules, which are released by neurons and astrocytes and can regulate blood vessel diameter. Dr. Clare Howarth will investigate how brain blood flow is controlled in response to increases in brain activity and how this is impaired in disease. In particular, she will be studying the role that astrocytes, a type of brain cell, play in the regulation of brain blood flow. One of the signaling molecules released by astrocytes, prostaglandin E2, can result in blood vessel dilation. Dr. Howarth’s hypothesis is that following a stroke, astrocytes have a decreased ability to produce prostaglandin E2, and this contributes to the long-lasting failure of blood vessels to dilate, leading to increasing neuronal damage. Using multi-photon imaging techniques, she will observe what happens to blood flow in the brain when astrocytes are stimulated with pharmaceutical or light-activated agents under conditions where the production of these signaling molecules is compromised. She will also investigate whether pharmaceutical therapies are able to reverse the effect, allowing blood vessels to dilate and help recover brain function after a stroke. This work will advance our understanding of how brain blood flow is regulated in response to neural activity. This knowledge is essential to understanding normal brain function, functional imaging techniques, and what occurs when the brain energy supply is cut off in disorders such as a stroke.