Astrocytes are considered key regulators of the iron metabolism of the brain. These cells are able to rapidly accumulate iron ions and various iron-containing compounds, store iron efficiently in ferritin and also export iron. The present short review summarizes our current knowledge of the molecular mechanisms involved in the handling of iron by astrocytes. Cultured astrocytes efficiently take up iron as ferrous or ferric iron ions or as haem by specific iron transport proteins in their cell membrane. In addition, astrocytes accumulate large amounts of iron oxide nanoparticles by endocytotic mechanisms. Despite the rapid accumulation of high amounts of iron from various iron-containing sources, the viability of astrocytes is hardly affected. A rather slow liberation of iron from accumulated haem or iron oxide nanoparticles as well as the strong up-regulation of the synthesis of the iron storage protein ferritin are likely to contribute to the high resistance of astrocytes to iron toxicity. The efficient uptake of extracellular iron by cultured astrocytes as well as their strong up-regulation of ferritin after iron exposure also suggests that brain astrocytes deal well with an excess of iron and protect the brain against iron-mediated toxicity.

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