What Are Glial Cells and What Do They Do?

These cells have an important role in supporting the brain

Glial cells are a type of cell that provides physical and chemical support to neurons and maintain their environment. Located in the central nervous system and peripheral nervous system, glial cells are sometimes called the "glue" of the nervous system, as well as neuroglia or just glia.

This article will go over what glial cells do in the brain and nerves in the body. You'll also learn about conditions that are related to glial cells.

Glial cells illustration
normaals/Getty Images

Types of Glial Cells

Glial cells' main job is to support another type of brain cell called neurons. Glial cells are like a secretarial pool for your nervous system and its janitorial and maintenance staff.

Glial cells may not do the "big jobs," in the brain, but without them, those big jobs would never get done.

There are different types of glial cells and each one has a specific role in helping your central nervous system (CNS)—which is made up of your brain and the nerves of your spinal column—work right.

There are five types of glial cells in your CNS:

  • Astrocytes
  • Oligodendrocytes
  • Microglia
  • Ependymal cells
  • Radial glia

You also have glial cells in your peripheral nervous system (PNS), which is made up of all the nerves in your body that are away from your spine (like your arms and legs).

The two types of glial cells in the PNS are:

  • Schwann cells
  • Satellite cells


The most common type of glial cell in the CNS is the astrocyte or astroglia. The "astro" part of the name is because the cells have projections that make them look star-shaped.

There are different kinds of astrocytes. For example, protoplasmic astrocytes have thick projections with lots of branches. Fibrous astrocytes have long, slender arms with few branches.

Protoplasmic astrocytes are generally found among neurons in the gray matter of the brain while the fibrous ones are typically found in white matter.

While they're found in different places, they do similar jobs, including:

  • Forming the blood-brain barrier (BBB): The BBB is like a strict security system for the brain. It only lets in substances that are supposed to be in your brain while keeping out things that could be harmful. This filtering system is essential for keeping your brain healthy.
  • Regulating neurotransmitters: Neurons communicate using chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Once the message is delivered, neurotransmitters hang around until an astrocyte recycles them. This reuptake process is the target of many medications, including antidepressants.
  • Cleaning up: Astrocytes also clean up what's left behind when a neuron dies, as well as excess potassium ions (chemicals that play an important role in nerve function).
  • Regulating blood flow to the brain: For your brain to process information properly, it needs a certain amount of blood going to all of its different regions. An active region gets more blood than an inactive one.
  • Synchronizing the activity of axons: Axons are long, thread-like parts of neurons and nerve cells that conduct electricity to send messages between cells.
  • Brain energy metabolism and homeostasis: One of the most important roles of astrocytes is to regulate metabolism in the brain by storing sugar (glucose) from the blood and providing it as fuel for neurons.

What Happens If Astrocytes Don't Work?

Astrocyte dysfunction has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases, including:

Animal models of astrocyte-related diseases are helping researchers learn more about them with the hope of discovering new treatment possibilities for them in humans.


Oligodendrocytes come from neural stem cells. The word is made up of a few Greek terms that mean "cells with several branches."

The main purpose of oligodendrocytes is to help information move faster along axons in the brain.

Oligodendrocytes look like spikey balls. On the tips of their spikes are white, shiny membranes that wrap around the axons of nerve cells and form a protective layer, like the plastic insulation on electrical wires. This protective layer is called the myelin sheath.

The sheath is not continuous, though. There's a gap between each membrane that's called the "node of Ranvier." This node helps electrical signals spread efficiently along nerve cells.

The signal actually hops from one node to the next and increases the velocity of the nerve conduction while also reducing how much energy it takes to transmit it.

Signals along myelinated nerves can travel as fast as 200 miles per second.

At birth, you only have a few myelinated axons, but the number keeps growing until you're about 25 to 30 years old. Myelination is believed to play an important role in intelligence.

Oligodendrocytes also provide stability and carry energy from blood cells to the axons.

The term "myelin sheath" is often used when talking about multiple sclerosis (MS) because this part gets damaged in the disease.

In people with MS, it's thought that the body's immune system attacks the myelin sheaths, which leads to dysfunction of the neurons and impaired brain function. Spinal cord injuries can also damage myelin sheaths.

Other diseases associated with oligodendrocyte dysfunction include:

Glutamate Damage

Oligodendrocytes can be damaged by the neurotransmitter glutamate. Its job is to stimulate areas of your brain so you can focus and learn new information.

However, glutamate is considered an "excitotoxin" at high levels, which means that it can overstimulate cells until they die.


Microglia are tiny glial cells ("micro" means small). They act as the brain's own dedicated immune system. The brain needs its own immune system because the blood-brain barrier isolates the brain from the rest of your body.

Microglia are alert to signs of injury and disease. When they detect a problem, they charge in and take care of it—whether it means clearing away dead cells or getting rid of a toxin or pathogen.

When microglia respond to an injury, it causes inflammation as part of the healing process.

Sometimes, the response causes problems. For example, in Alzheimer's disease, microglia are hyperactivated and cause too much inflammation. The response may lead to amyloid plaques and other brain changes related to Alzheimer's.

Along with Alzheimer's, other conditions linked to microglial dysfunction include:

Microglia are believed to have many jobs, including playing a "housekeeping" role in learning-associated brain plasticity and guiding the development of the brain.

Our brains create a lot of connections between neurons that allow them to pass information back and forth. In fact, the brain creates a lot more of them than we need, which is not very efficient.

Microglia detect unnecessary synapses and "prune" them, just as a gardener prunes a rose bush to keep it healthy.

Ependymal Cells

Ependymal cells make up the thin membrane lining the central canal of the spinal cord and the passageways (ventricles) of the brain (ependyma). They also make cerebrospinal fluid and have an important role in the blood-brain barrier.

Ependymal cells are very small and line up tightly to form the membrane. Inside the ventricles, they have little hairlike projections (cilia) that wave back and forth to keep the cerebrospinal fluid circulating.

Cerebrospinal fluid delivers nutrients to and eliminates waste products from the brain and spinal column. It also serves as a cushion and shock absorber between your brain and skull.

The fluid is also necessary to maintain homeostasis of your brain, which means regulating its temperature and other features that keep it operating as well as possible.

Radial Glia

Radial glia is believed to be a type of stem cell. This type of cell can create other cells. In the developing brain, stem cells are the "parents" of neurons, astrocytes, and oligodendrocytes.

When you were an embryo, these cells also provided the "scaffolding" for developing neurons. They provide the long fibers that guide young brain cells into place as your brain forms.

Since they have an important role as stem cells, especially as creators of neurons, researchers have looked at radial glia to learn more about how to repair brain damage from illness or injury.

Later in life, these cells contribute to your brain's ability to change and adapt (neuroplasticity).       

Schwann Cells

Schwann cells are named for Theodor Schwann, the physiologist who discovered them.

They function a lot like oligodendrocytes by providing myelin sheaths for axons. However, Schwann cells are found in the peripheral nervous system (PNS) rather than the CNS.

Instead of being a central cell with membrane-tipped arms, Schwann cells form spirals directly around the axon. The nodes of Ranvier sit between them, just as they do with oligodendrocytes, and assist in nerve transmission in the same way.

Schwann cells are also part of the PNS's immune system. When a nerve cell is damaged, it can "eat" the nerve's axons and provide a protected path for a new axon to form.

There are a few diseases that involve the Schwann cells, such as:

Schwann cells might also be involved in some forms of chronic pain. The activation of the cells after nerve damage might contribute to dysfunction in a type of nerve fibers called nociceptors, which sense environmental factors such as heat and cold.

There has been exciting research on transplanting Schwann cells for spinal cord injury and other types of peripheral nerve damage.

Satellite Cells

Satellite cells get their name from the way they surround certain neurons, with several "satellites" forming a sheath around the cellular surface.

We're just beginning to learn about satellite cells but many researchers believe they're similar to astrocytes. However, they're found in the PNS, not the CNS.

Satellite cells' main purpose appears to be regulating the environment around the neurons, keeping chemicals in balance.

The neurons with satellite cells make up clusters of nerve cells in the autonomic nervous system and the sensory system called ganglia.

The autonomic nervous system regulates your internal organs, while your sensory system is what allows you to see, hear, smell, touch, feel, and taste.

Satellite cells deliver nutrition to the neuron and absorb heavy metal toxins, such as mercury and lead, to keep them from damaging the neurons.

Like microglia, satellite cells detect and respond to injury and inflammation, but their role in repairing cell damage is not yet understood.

It's also thought that satellite cells help transport several neurotransmitters and other substances, including:

Satellite cells are linked to chronic pain involving peripheral tissue injury, nerve damage, and a systemic heightening of pain (hyperalgesia) that can result from chemotherapy.


There are several kinds of glial cells in your brain and the nerves throughout your body. Each type has a special—and important—job in keeping your brain working at its best.

If these cells get damaged or are affected by a disease, it can cause problems in your nervous system.

We have a sense of what glial cells do in the body, but still have a lot left to learn.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How many glial cells are in the brian?

    Researchers believe that there are anywhere from 40 to 130 billion glial cells in the brain.

  • Do glial cells transmit information?

    Some glial cells help transmit information in the brain. For example, astrocytes and oligodendrocytes both play important roles in helping neurons "talk" to each other.

  • What happens if glial cells are damaged?

    Glial cells that are damaged won't be able to do their jobs well—if at all. The effects of glial cell dysfunction depend on what role they play in the brain.

    For example, if Schwann cells are not working correctly, it can contribute to chronic pain. The overactivation of microglia may cause inflammation that's possibly linked to Alzheimer's brain changes.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading

By Adrienne Dellwo
Adrienne Dellwo is an experienced journalist who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and has written extensively on the topic.