For decades, astrocytes have been considered to be non-excitable support cells of the brain. However, this view has changed radically during the past twenty years. The recent recognition that they are organized in separate territories and possess active properties--notably a competence for the regulated release of 'gliotransmitters', including glutamate--has enabled us to develop an understanding of previously unknown functions for astrocytes. Today, astrocytes are seen as local communication elements of the brain that can generate various regulatory signals and bridge structures (from neuronal to vascular) and networks that are otherwise disconnected from each other. Examples of their specific and essential roles in normal physiological processes have begun to accumulate, and the number of diseases known to involve defective astrocytes is increasing.