Glial cells are present in all organisms with a CNS and, with increasing brain complexity, glial cells have undergone substantive increases in cell number, diversity, and functions. Invertebrates, such as Drosophila, possess glial subtypes with similarity to mammalian astrocytes in their basic morphology and function, representing fertile ground for unraveling fundamental aspects of glial biology. Although glial subtypes in simple organisms may be relatively homogenous, emerging evidence suggests the possibility that mammalian astrocytes might be highly diversified to match the needs of local neuronal subtypes. In this Perspective, we review classic and new roles identified for astrocytes and oligodendrocytes by recent studies. We propose that delineating genetic and developmental programs across species will be essential to understand the core functions of glia that allow enhanced neuronal function and to achieve new insights into glial roles in higher-order brain function and neurological disease.
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