The human brain contains two major cell populations, neurons and glia. While neurons are electrically excitable and capable of discharging short voltage pulses known as action potentials, glial cells are not. However, astrocytes, the prevailing subtype of glia in the cortex, are highly connected and can modulate the excitability of neurons by changing the concentration of potassium ions in the extracellular environment, a process called K+ clearance.
During the past decade, astrocytes have been the focus of much research, mainly due to their close association with synapses and their modulatory impact on neuronal activity. It has been shown that astrocytes play an essential role in normal brain function including: nitrosative regulation of synaptic release in the neocortex, synaptogenesis, synaptic transmission and plasticity. Here, we discuss the role of astrocytes in network modulation through their K+ clearance capabilities, a theory that was first raised 50 years ago by Orkand and Kuffler. We will discuss the functional alterations in astrocytic activity that leads to aberrant modulation of network oscillations and synchronous activity.