Scientists Say: Glia

These brain cells glue the brain together — and do a lot more


This image has drawings of three different types of glial cell — astrocytes, microglia and oligodendrocytes. Each has its own important function. (Other labels mark neurons and parts of neurons.)


Glia (noun, “GLEE-uh”)

This word is short for “neuroglia,” but they’re just “glia” to their friends. Glia are a type of cell in the nervous system. An adult man has about 85 billion glia and about 86 billion neurons — cells in the brain that conduct electrical signals.

The term glia comes from the Greek word for “glue.” Scientists used to think that glial cells were simply the glue of the nervous system, helping to hold brain and nerves together. But now we know that there are many types of glia, and they perform many important functions in the brain. Glia do help hold the nervous system together. But glial cells also provide other brain cells with food and oxygen. These are astrocytes. Glia called oligodendrocytes wrap around long parts of neurons to help their electrical signals move faster. And microglia help protect the brain from dangerous infections or damage.

In a sentence

The glia that act as the brain’s immune system can also control how much weight a mouse gains or loses when it eats a fatty diet.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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