Glia are non-neuronal cells in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) and the peripheral nervous system that do not produce electrical impulses. They maintain homeostasis, form myelin in the peripheral nervous system, and provide support and protection for neurons.
In the central nervous system, glial cells include oligodendrocytes, astrocytes, ependymal cells, and microglia, and in the peripheral nervous system glial cells include Schwann cells and satellite cells.
Glia were discovered in 1856, by the pathologist Rudolf Virchow in his search for a “connective tissue” in the brain.
Most glia are derived from ectodermal tissue of the developing embryo, in particular the neural tube and crest. The exception is microglia, which are derived from hemopoietic stem cells. In the adult, microglia are largely a self-renewing population and are distinct from macrophages and monocytes, which infiltrate an injured and diseased CNS.
In the central nervous system, glia develop from the ventricular zone of the neural tube. These glia include the oligodendrocytes, ependymal cells, and astrocytes. In the peripheral nervous system, glia derive from the neural crest. These PNS glia include Schwann cells in nerves and satellite glial cells in ganglia.
Some glial cells function primarily as the physical support for neurons. Others provide nutrients to neurons and regulate the extracellular fluid of the brain, especially surrounding neurons and their synapses. During early embryogenesis, glial cells direct the migration of neurons and produce molecules that modify the growth of axons and dendrites. Some glial cells display regional diversity in the CNS and their functions may vary between the CNS regions.
Glia are crucial in the development of the nervous system and in processes such as synaptic plasticity and synaptogenesis. Glia have a role in the regulation of repair of neurons after injury. In the central nervous system (CNS), glia suppress repair. Glial cells known as astrocytes enlarge and proliferate to form a scar and produce inhibitory molecules that inhibit regrowth of a damaged or severed axon. In the peripheral nervous system (PNS), glial cells known as Schwann cells promote repair.
Oligodendrocytes are found in the CNS and resemble an octopus: they have bulbous cell bodies with up to fifteen arm-like processes. Each process reaches out to an axon and spirals around it, creating a myelin sheath. The myelin sheath insulates the nerve fiber from the extracellular fluid and speeds up signal conduction along the nerve fiber. In the peripheral nervous system, Schwann cells are responsible for myelin production.
Astrocytes are crucial participants in the tripartite synapse. They have several crucial functions, including clearance of neurotransmitters from within the synaptic cleft, which aids in distinguishing between separate action potentials and prevents toxic build-up of certain neurotransmitters such as glutamate, which would otherwise lead to excitotoxicity.
While glia were thought to outnumber neurons by a ratio of 10:1, recent studies using newer methods and reappraisal of historical quantitative evidence suggests an overall ratio of less than 1:1, with substantial variation between different brain tissues.
Glial cells have far more cellular diversity and functions than neurons, and glial cells can respond to and manipulate neurotransmission in many ways. Additionally, they can affect both the preservation and consolidation of memories.