Feeding active neurons: (re)emergence of a nursing role for astrocytes
Despite unquestionable evidence that glucose is the major energy substrate for the brain, data collected over several decades with different approaches suggest that lactate may represent a supplementary metabolic substrate for neurons. Starting with the pioneering work of McIlwain in the early 1950s which showed that lactate can sustain the respiratory rate of small brain tissue pieces, this idea receives confirmation with more recent studies using nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy undoubtedly demonstrating that lactate is efficiently oxidized by neurons, both in vitro and in vivo. Not only is lactate able to maintain ATP levels and promote neuronal survival but it was also found to support neuronal activity, at least if low levels of glucose are present. Despite the early suggestion for a role of astrocytes in metabolic supply to neurons, it is only recently however that they have been considered as a potential source of lactate for neurons. Moreover, it has been proposed that astrocytes might provide lactate to neurons in response to enhanced synaptic activity by a well-characterized mechanism involving glutamate uptake. The description of specific transporters for lactate on both astrocytes and neurons further suggest that there exist a coordinated mechanism of lactate exchange between the two cell types. Thus it is proposed that astrocytes play a nursing role toward neurons by providing lactate as an additional energy substrate especially during periods of enhanced synaptic activity. The importance of this metabolic cooperation within the central nervous system, although not unique if compared to other organs, still remains to be explored.