Glial regulation of neuronal function: from synapse to systems physiology

J Neuroendocrinol. 2012 Apr;24(4):566-76. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2826.2011.02259.x.


Classically, glia have been regarded as non-excitable cells that provide nourishment and physical scaffolding for neurones. However, it is now generally accepted that glia are active participants in brain function that can modulate neuronal communication via several mechanisms. Investigations of anatomical plasticity in the magnocellular neuroendocrine system of the hypothalamic paraventricular and supraoptic nuclei led the way in the development of much of our understanding of glial regulation of neuronal activity. In this review, we provide an overview of glial regulation of magnocellular neurone activity from a historical perspective of the development of our knowledge of the morphological changes that are evident in the paraventricular and supraoptic nuclei. We also focus on recent data from the authors' laboratories presented at the 9th World Congress on Neurohypophysial Hormones that have contributed to our understanding of the multiple mechanisms by which glia modulate the activity of neurones, including: gliotransmitter modulation of synaptic transmission; trans-synaptic modulation by glial neurotransmitter transporter regulation of neurotransmitter spillover; and glial neurotransmitter transporter modulation of excitability by regulation of ambient neurotransmitter levels and their action on extrasynaptic receptors. The magnocellular neuroendocrine system secretes oxytocin and vasopressin from the posterior pituitary gland to control birth, lactation and body fluid balance, and we finally speculate as to whether glial regulation of individual magnocellular neurones might co-ordinate population activity to respond appropriately to altered physiological circumstances.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arginine Vasopressin / physiology
  • Female
  • Lactation / physiology*
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neuroglia / physiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Oxytocin / physiology
  • Paraventricular Hypothalamic Nucleus / cytology
  • Paraventricular Hypothalamic Nucleus / physiology*
  • Supraoptic Nucleus / cytology
  • Supraoptic Nucleus / physiology*
  • Synaptic Transmission / physiology*
  • Water-Electrolyte Balance / physiology*


  • Arginine Vasopressin
  • Oxytocin