Astrocytic coverage of dendritic spines, dendritic shafts, and axonal boutons in hippocampal neuropil
Distal astrocytic processes have a complex morphology, reminiscent of branchlets and leaflets. Astrocytic branchlets are rod-like processes containing mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum, capable of generating inositol-3-phosphate (IP3)-dependent Ca2+signals. Leaflets are small and flat processes that protrude from branchlets and fill the space between synapses. Here we use three-dimensional (3D) reconstructions from serial section electron microscopy (EM) of rat CA1 hippocampal neuropil to determine the astrocytic coverage of dendritic spines, shafts and axonal boutons. The distance to the maximum of the astrocyte volume fraction (VF) correlated with the size of the spine when calculated from the center of mass of the postsynaptic density (PSD) or from the edge of the PSD, but not from the spine surface. This suggests that the astrocytic coverage of small and larger spines is similar in hippocampal neuropil. Diffusion simulations showed that such synaptic microenvironment favors glutamate spillover and extrasynaptic receptor activation at smaller spines. We used complexity and entropy measures to characterize astrocytic branchlets and leaflets. The 2D projections of astrocytic branchlets had smaller spatial complexity and entropy than leaflets, consistent with the higher structural complexity and less organized distribution of leaflets. The VF of astrocytic leaflets was highest around dendritic spines, lower around axonal boutons and lowest around dendritic shafts. In contrast, the VF of astrocytic branchlets was similarly low around these three neuronal compartments. Taken together, these results suggest that astrocytic leaflets preferentially contact synapses as opposed to the dendritic shaft, an arrangement that might favor neurotransmitter spillover and extrasynaptic receptor activation along dendritic shafts.