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Illustration A shows various types of glial cells surrounding a multipolar nerve of the central nervous system. Oligodendrocytes have an oval body and protrusions that wrap around the axon. Astrocytes are round and slightly larger than neurons, with many extensions projecting outward to neurons and other cells. Microglia are small and rectangular, with many fine projections. Ependymal cells have small, round bodies lined up in a row. Long extensions connect from the ependymal cells to an astrocyte. Illustration B shows a pseudounipolar cell of the peripheral nervous system. Schwann cells wrap around the branched axon, and satellite cells surround the neuron cell body.
Glial cells support neurons and maintain their environment. Glial cells of the (a) central nervous system include oligodendrocytes, astrocytes, ependymal cells, and microglial cells. Oligodendrocytes form the myelin sheath around axons. Astrocytes provide nutrients to neurons, maintain their extracellular environment, and provide structural support. Microglia scavenge pathogens and dead cells. Ependymal cells produce cerebrospinal fluid that cushions the neurons. Glial cells of the (b) peripheral nervous system include Schwann cells, which form the myelin sheath, and satellite cells, which provide nutrients and structural support to neurons. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

While glia are often thought of as the supporting cast of the nervous system, the number of glial cells in the brain actually outnumbers the number of neurons by a factor of ten. Neurons would be unable to function without the vital roles that are fulfilled by these glial cells. Glia guide developing neurons to their destinations, buffer ions and chemicals that would otherwise harm neurons, and provide myelin sheaths around axons. Scientists have recently discovered that they also play a role in responding to nerve activity and modulating communication between nerve cells. When glia do not function properly, the result can be disastrous—most brain tumors are caused by mutations in glia.

Types of Glia

There are several different types of glia with different functions . Astrocytes make contact with both capillaries and neurons in the CNS. They provide nutrients and other substances to neurons, regulate the concentrations of ions and chemicals in the extracellular fluid, and provide structural support for synapses. Astrocytes also form the blood-brain barrier—a structure that blocks entrance of toxic substances into the brain. Astrocytes, in particular, have been shown through calcium imaging experiments to become active in response to nerve activity, transmit calcium waves between astrocytes, and modulate the activity of surrounding synapses. Satellite glia provide nutrients and structural support for neurons in the PNS. Microglia scavenge and degrade dead cells and protect the brain from invading microorganisms. Oligodendrocytes form myelin sheaths around axons in the CNS. One axon can be myelinated by several oligodendrocytes, and one oligodendrocyte can provide myelin for multiple neurons. This is distinctive from the PNS where a single Schwann cell provides myelin for only one axon as the entire Schwann cell surrounds the axon. Radial glia serve as scaffolds for developing neurons as they migrate to their end destinations. Ependymal cells line fluid-filled ventricles of the brain and the central canal of the spinal cord. They are involved in the production of cerebrospinal fluid, which serves as a cushion for the brain, moves the fluid between the spinal cord and the brain, and is a component for the choroid plexus.

Astrocytes, fluorescently labeled green, are irregularly shaped with long extensions that provide support to nerve cells. Oligodendrocytes, also labeled green, are round with long, branched extensions that form the myelin sheath of nerve cells.
(a) Astrocytes and (b) oligodendrocytes are glial cells of the central nervous system. (credit a: modification of work by Uniformed Services University; credit b: modification of work by Jurjen Broeke; scale-bar data from Matt Russell)


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:

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