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Stress-Induced Loss of NG2 Glial Cells in the Brain Causes Depression

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Stress-Induced Loss of NG2 Glial Cells in the Brain Causes Depression

Stony Brook researchers make discovery, as published in the journal Neuron, using genetic and stress-induced loss of the crucial brain cells

Aguirre Lab
The Stony Brook research team investigating the glial cell, NG2,  shown in background, has discovered loss of these brain cells causes depression. Front row, from left: Adan Aguirre, lead investigator; Jianchoo Gao, and Nadia McMillan. Back row, from left: Javier Palazuelos, Manideep Chavali, and Israa Hussein. 

Stony Brook, NY, December 10, 2015 – A Stony Brook University-led research team has discovered that when a rare type of glial cells, called NG2 glia, are depleted from the brain in mice, depressive-like behaviors occur. This finding, published early online in the journal Neuron, helps to advance the understanding of brain changes associated with depression and suggests novel therapeutic targets for antidepressant drug development.

The brain is made up of neurons and glial cells. There are about 100 billion neurons in the average human brain. There are 10-50 times more glial cells though, suggesting that they undertake critical roles in brain function. Lead Author Adan Aguirre, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Pharmacological Sciences at Stony Brook University School of Medicine, began studying NG2 glia more than a decade ago as a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Neuroscience Research in Washington, D.C. His work revealed that NG2 glia function as stem cells in adult animals to replenish neurons and other types of glia. Dr. Aguirre’s current research group now reports, however, that NG2 also play a remarkable role in opposing depression caused by chronic stress.

In the paper, “Genetic and Stress-Induced Loss of NG2 Glia Triggers Emergence of Depressive-like Behaviors through Reduced Secretion of FGF2,” the researchers demonstrated that NG2 glia, through production of the growth factor FGF2, encourage astrocytes, another type of glia, to properly regulate the brain levels of glutamate, the main excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain.

“We found that when NG2 glia, and consequently the production of FGF2, are decreased, depressive-like behaviors take hold,” said Dr. Aguirre. “Conversely, when the abundance of NG2 glia is returned to normal levels, the depressive-like behaviors cease.” The researchers used genetic manipulations to ablate NG2 glia in the prefrontal cortex of adult mice. This caused deficits in neurotransmission and other brain processes that induced depressive-like behavior. The team similarly demonstrated that blocking NG2 glial secretion of FGF2 induces the same depressive behaviors.

Most critically for relevance to the origin of environmentally-induced human depression, sustained mild social stressors in mice caused NG2 glial density to decrease in brain areas associated with major depressive disorder pathophysiology. Moreover, the paper reported that similar decreases in NG2 glial density were seen in autopsy brain samples from humans with depression, but not from people treated with drugs to overcome the disorder.

“Our findings outline a pathway through which chronic stress affects a specific type of glia in the brain that is critical in homeostasis and mood disorders,” summarized Dr. Aguirre.

He added that further experimentation will help increase the team’s understanding of the cellular and molecular targets regulated by NG2 glia in stress disorders, a key step toward discovering novel therapeutic targets for antidepressant drug development.

Co-investigators of the study include students and faculty from Stony Brook University’s Departments of Pharmacological Sciences, Neurobiology and Behavior, Biomedical Engineering, and Psychology, along with researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine.


About Stony Brook University School of Medicine:

Established in 1971, the Stony Brook University School of Medicine includes 25 academic departments. The three missions of the School are to advance the understanding of the origins of human health and disease; train the next generation of committed, curious and highly capable physicians; and deliver world-class compassionate healthcare. As a member of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) and a Liaison Committee on Medical Education (LCME) accredited medical school, Stony Brook is one of the foremost institutes of higher medical education in the country. Each year the School trains nearly 500 medical students and more than 480 medical residents and fellows. Faculty research includes National Institutes of Health-sponsored programs in neurological diseases, cancer, cardiovascular disorders, biomedical imaging, regenerative medicine, infectious diseases, and many other topics. Physicians on the School of Medicine faculty deliver world-class medical care through more than 30,000 inpatient, 80,000 emergency room, and approximately 350,000 outpatient visits annually at Stony Brook University Hospital and affiliated clinical programs, making its clinical services one of the largest and highest quality on Long Island, New York. To learn more, visit

Greg Filiano
Media Relations Manager
School of Medicine
Stony Brook University
Office of Communications and Marketing

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