Oligodendrocytes vs. Schwann Cells

What's the Difference?

Oligodendrocytes and Schwann cells are both types of glial cells found in the nervous system that play a crucial role in supporting and protecting neurons. However, there are some key differences between the two. Oligodendrocytes are found in the central nervous system (CNS), while Schwann cells are found in the peripheral nervous system (PNS). Oligodendrocytes can myelinate multiple axons at once, forming myelin sheaths around them, whereas Schwann cells myelinate only one axon. Additionally, oligodendrocytes are larger and have a more complex structure compared to Schwann cells. Despite these differences, both cell types are essential for the proper functioning of the nervous system.


AttributeOligodendrocytesSchwann Cells
LocationCentral Nervous System (CNS)Peripheral Nervous System (PNS)
Cell TypeGliaGlia
MyelinationMyelinates multiple axonsMyelinates a single axon
Myelin Sheath FormationForms myelin sheath by extending processesForms myelin sheath by wrapping around axon
Number of Axons MyelinatedCan myelinate multiple axons simultaneouslyMyelinates a single axon at a time
Speed of MyelinationSlower myelination processFaster myelination process
Regeneration AbilityPoor regeneration abilityBetter regeneration ability
Associated DiseasesMultiple SclerosisCharcot-Marie-Tooth Disease

Further Detail


Oligodendrocytes and Schwann cells are two types of glial cells found in the nervous system. While both play crucial roles in supporting and protecting neurons, they differ in their anatomical location, function, and developmental origin. In this article, we will explore the attributes of oligodendrocytes and Schwann cells, highlighting their similarities and differences.

Anatomical Location

Oligodendrocytes are primarily found in the central nervous system (CNS), which includes the brain and spinal cord. They form myelin sheaths around axons in the CNS, allowing for faster and more efficient transmission of electrical signals. In contrast, Schwann cells are located in the peripheral nervous system (PNS), which includes nerves outside the CNS. Schwann cells also produce myelin, but they wrap around individual axons in the PNS, providing insulation and support.


Both oligodendrocytes and Schwann cells have the crucial function of producing myelin, a fatty substance that wraps around axons. Myelin acts as an insulating layer, preventing signal loss and enhancing the speed of electrical conduction along the axon. This myelination process is essential for proper functioning of the nervous system.

Additionally, oligodendrocytes and Schwann cells play roles in supporting and nourishing neurons. They provide structural support, regulate the extracellular environment, and contribute to the repair and regeneration of damaged nerves. Schwann cells, in particular, have the ability to guide regenerating axons during the healing process.

Developmental Origin

Oligodendrocytes and Schwann cells have different developmental origins. Oligodendrocytes are derived from oligodendrocyte precursor cells (OPCs) that originate from the ventricular zone of the neural tube during embryonic development. These precursor cells migrate and differentiate into mature oligodendrocytes in the CNS.

In contrast, Schwann cells arise from neural crest cells, a group of cells that form along the dorsal region of the developing embryo. These neural crest cells migrate to different regions of the body, including the PNS, where they differentiate into Schwann cells. This distinct developmental origin contributes to the differences in distribution and function between oligodendrocytes and Schwann cells.

Myelin Structure

While both oligodendrocytes and Schwann cells produce myelin, there are structural differences in the myelin sheaths they form. In the CNS, oligodendrocytes extend multiple processes to wrap around several axons, forming myelin sheaths that cover multiple segments of different axons. This allows a single oligodendrocyte to myelinate multiple axons simultaneously.

In contrast, Schwann cells myelinate a single segment of an axon. Each Schwann cell wraps around a specific portion of an axon, forming a myelin sheath that covers only that segment. This one-to-one relationship between Schwann cells and axons is a key distinction from oligodendrocytes.

Regeneration and Repair

When it comes to regeneration and repair, Schwann cells have a remarkable ability to support nerve regrowth. If a peripheral nerve is damaged, Schwann cells play a crucial role in the regeneration process. They form a pathway for regenerating axons, secreting growth factors and creating a supportive environment for nerve regrowth.

Oligodendrocytes, on the other hand, have limited regenerative capabilities in the CNS. Unlike Schwann cells, they do not readily support axon regeneration after injury. This difference is due to various factors, including the inhibitory environment of the CNS and the lack of a one-to-one relationship between oligodendrocytes and axons.


Oligodendrocytes and Schwann cells are both essential components of the nervous system, contributing to the proper functioning, support, and protection of neurons. While they share the common function of myelination, they differ in their anatomical location, developmental origin, myelin structure, and regenerative capabilities. Understanding the attributes of oligodendrocytes and Schwann cells is crucial for comprehending the complex mechanisms underlying the nervous system and its ability to transmit and process information.

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