Macroglia vs. Microglia

What's the Difference?

Macroglia and microglia are two types of glial cells found in the central nervous system. Macroglia, also known as macroglial cells, are larger in size and include astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and ependymal cells. They provide structural support to neurons, regulate the extracellular environment, and play a crucial role in the formation and maintenance of the blood-brain barrier. On the other hand, microglia are the smallest glial cells and are considered the resident immune cells of the brain. They act as the first line of defense against pathogens and injury, and are involved in the clearance of cellular debris and inflammation. While macroglia primarily support neuronal function, microglia are primarily involved in immune responses within the central nervous system.


Cell TypeNon-neuronalNon-neuronal
FunctionSupport and nourish neuronsImmune defense and maintenance
AbundanceLess abundantMore abundant
ShapeStellate or fibrousSmall and ramified
OriginDerived from neuroepitheliumDerived from myeloid progenitors
LocationFound in various regions of the CNSFound throughout the CNS
Role in Synaptic TransmissionModulate synaptic activityRegulate synaptic pruning and plasticity

Further Detail


Within the complex network of cells in the central nervous system (CNS), glial cells play a crucial role in supporting and maintaining the functionality of neurons. Glial cells are divided into two main categories: macroglia and microglia. While both types of glial cells are essential for the proper functioning of the CNS, they differ in their structure, origin, functions, and response to various stimuli. In this article, we will explore the attributes of macroglia and microglia, shedding light on their unique characteristics and contributions to the intricate workings of the brain.


Macroglia, also known as macroglial cells or macroglial neuroglia, are a group of glial cells that include astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and ependymal cells. These cells are derived from neuroepithelial cells during embryonic development and continue to proliferate throughout life. Macroglia are larger in size compared to microglia and are primarily responsible for providing structural support, regulating the extracellular environment, and promoting neuronal survival.


Astrocytes are the most abundant type of macroglial cells in the CNS. They have a star-shaped appearance, with numerous processes extending from their cell bodies. Astrocytes are involved in various functions, including maintaining the blood-brain barrier, regulating ion and neurotransmitter concentrations, providing metabolic support to neurons, and participating in the formation and elimination of synapses. Additionally, astrocytes play a crucial role in repairing damaged neural tissue and modulating synaptic plasticity, contributing to learning and memory processes.


Oligodendrocytes are another type of macroglial cells that are responsible for producing myelin, a fatty substance that wraps around axons, forming the myelin sheath. This sheath acts as an insulating layer, allowing for faster and more efficient transmission of electrical signals along the axon. Oligodendrocytes can myelinate multiple axons, enabling them to support and protect several neurons simultaneously. Dysfunction or loss of oligodendrocytes can lead to demyelinating diseases such as multiple sclerosis, where the disrupted myelin sheath impairs neuronal communication.

Ependymal Cells

Ependymal cells line the ventricles of the brain and the central canal of the spinal cord. These specialized cells have cilia on their apical surface, which help circulate cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and facilitate its production. Ependymal cells also play a role in the regulation of CSF composition and contribute to the formation of the blood-CSF barrier. Furthermore, they possess stem cell-like properties and can give rise to new neurons and glial cells in certain regions of the CNS, suggesting their involvement in neurogenesis and repair processes.


Microglia, often referred to as the immune cells of the CNS, are the resident macrophages of the brain. They are derived from myeloid progenitor cells in the yolk sac during early embryonic development and migrate to the CNS, where they become distributed throughout the brain and spinal cord. Microglia are significantly smaller in size compared to macroglia and are characterized by their highly motile processes, allowing them to survey the surrounding environment and respond rapidly to any changes or threats.

Microglia play a crucial role in immune surveillance and defense within the CNS. They constantly monitor the microenvironment and promptly respond to any injury, infection, or inflammation. Upon activation, microglia undergo morphological changes, transforming into an amoeboid shape and migrating towards the site of damage or infection. Activated microglia release various signaling molecules, such as cytokines and chemokines, to recruit other immune cells and initiate an immune response. Additionally, microglia are involved in the clearance of cellular debris, dead neurons, and toxic substances, contributing to the maintenance of a healthy and functional CNS.

Functional Differences

While both macroglia and microglia contribute to the overall homeostasis and functionality of the CNS, they have distinct functions and responses to different stimuli.

Macroglia Functions

  • Astrocytes provide structural support to neurons and regulate the extracellular environment.
  • Oligodendrocytes produce myelin, facilitating efficient electrical signal transmission.
  • Ependymal cells contribute to CSF circulation, regulate its composition, and possess stem cell-like properties.

Microglia Functions

  • Microglia act as immune cells, constantly surveying the CNS microenvironment.
  • They respond to injury, infection, or inflammation by migrating to the affected site and releasing signaling molecules.
  • Microglia are involved in the clearance of cellular debris and toxic substances.


Macroglia and microglia, the two main categories of glial cells in the CNS, play distinct but equally important roles in maintaining the functionality and integrity of the brain. Macroglia, including astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and ependymal cells, provide structural support, regulate the extracellular environment, produce myelin, and contribute to CSF circulation. On the other hand, microglia act as immune cells, constantly surveying the CNS microenvironment, responding to injury or infection, and participating in the clearance of cellular debris. Understanding the attributes and functions of macroglia and microglia is crucial for unraveling the complexities of the CNS and developing potential therapeutic strategies for various neurological disorders.

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