The application of freeze-fracture techniques to studies of brain structure has led to the recognition of two unsuspected specializations of membrane structure, each distributed in a specific pattern across the surface of astrocytes. ‘Assemblies’ (aggregates of uniform, small particles packed in orthogonal array into rectangular or square aggregates) are found to characterize astrocytic plasma membranes apposed to blood vessels or to the cerebrospinal fluid at the surface of the brain. These particle aggregates are much less densely packed in astrocytic processes in brain parenchyma. Assemblies are not fixation artifacts, have been shown to extend to the true outer surface of the membrane, are remarkably labile in the setting of anoxia, and are at least in part protein. The function of assemblies is unknown, but their positioning suggests that they may have a role in the transport of some material into or out of the blood and cerebrospinal fluid compartments. A second specialization of intramembrane particle distribution, the polygonal particle junction, links astrocytic processes at the surface of the brain, and also links proximal, large caliber astrocytic processes in brain parenchyma. The function of this membrane specialization also is unknown, but it may subserve a mechanical role.

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