Although it is widely believed that astrocytes lack excitability in adult tissue, primitive action potential-like responses have been elicited from holding potentials negative to -80 mV, in cultured and injury-induced gliotic rodent astrocytes and in human glia under pathological conditions such as glioblastomas and temporal lobe epilepsy. The present study was designed to investigate the properties of astrocytes (identified by immunoreactivity for glial fibrillary acidic protein) derived from multipotent human embryonic CNS stem cells and cultured for 12-25 days in differentiating conditions. We describe here for the first time that brief (1 ms) current pulses elicit spikes from a resting potential (V(REST)) of ≃-37 mV and, more interestingly, that spontaneous firing can be occasionally recorded in human astrocytes. A voltage-clamp study revealed that in these cells: (i) the half-inactivation of the tetrodotoxin (TTX)-sensitive Na+ channels is around V(REST); (ii) the delayed rectifier K+ current is very small; (iii) the ever-present transient outward A-type K+ channels are paradoxically capable of inhibiting the action potentials elicited from a negative membrane potential (-55 to -60 mV); and (iv) inwardly rectifying currents are not present. The responses predicted from a simulation model are in agreement with the experiments. As suggested by recent studies, the decrease of Na+ channel expression and the changes of the electrophysiological properties during the postnatal maturation of the CNS seem to exclude the possibility that astrocytes may play an excitable role in adult tissue. Our data show that excitability and firing should be considered an intrinsic attribute of human astrocytes during CNS development. This is likely to have physiological importance because the role of astrocytes during development is different from the [K+](o)-buffering role played in adult CNS, namely the glutamate release and/or the guiding of migrating neurons.
- CNS stem cells
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