The human optic nerve contains a heterogeneous population of astrocytes. In situ, a specialized subpopulation of astrocytes was distinguished in the adult optic nerve head by expression of neural cell adhesion molecule (NCAM). To further study the biology of astrocytes, we have developed and characterized cells grown from explanted optic nerve heads and myelinated optic nerves as in vitro model systems. Second or third passage cells were processed for immunocytochemistry using antibodies against glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) and cell surface epitopes: CD56/NCAM, HNK-1/NCAM, A2B5, and O4. Synthesis and gene expression of NCAM were characterized by Western blot analysis and RNase protection assay. Cells grown from myelinated optic nerves expressing GFAP, but not NCAM or A2B5, were identified as type 1A astrocytes, and cells expressing GFAP and A2B5, but not NCAM, were identified as type 2 astrocytes. Cells grown from explanted optic nerve head expressing GFAP, NCAM, and O4 were identified as type 1B astrocytes. Expression of NCAM by type 1B astrocytes may provide these cells with adhesion properties that allow them specialized responses in their microenvironment. Astrocytes from the lamina cribrosa may form a functional barrier to prevent myelination of the retina. In glaucoma, these astrocytes may be exposed to stresses due to fluctuation in intraocular pressure and therefore participate in the optic nerve changes associated with glaucomatous optic neuropathy.