The glia/neuron ratio: How it varies uniformly across brain structures and species and what that means for brain physiology and evolution

Authors

  • Suzana Herculano-Houzel

    Corresponding author
    1. Instituto de Ciências Biomédicas, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil
    2. Instituto Nacional de Neurociência Translacional, São Paulo, SP, Brazil
    • Address correspondence to Suzana Herculano-Houzel, Instituto de Ciências Biomédicas, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Rua Carlos Chagas Filho 373, sala F1–009, Ilha do Fundão, 21941-590 Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brazil. E-mail: suzanahh@gmail.com

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Abstract

It is a widespread notion that the proportion of glial to neuronal cells in the brain increases with brain size, to the point that glial cells represent “about 90% of all cells in the human brain.” This notion, however, is wrong on both counts: neither does the glia/neuron ratio increase uniformly with brain size, nor do glial cells represent the majority of cells in the human brain. This review examines the origin of interest in the glia/neuron ratio; the original evidence that led to the notion that it increases with brain size; the extent to which this concept can be applied to white matter and whole brains and the recent supporting evidence that the glia/neuron ratio does not increase with brain size, but rather, and in surprisingly uniform fashion, with decreasing neuronal density due to increasing average neuronal cell size, across brain structures and species. Variations in the glia/neuron ratio are proposed to be related not to the supposed larger metabolic cost of larger neurons (given that this cost is not found to vary with neuronal density), but simply to the large variation in neuronal sizes across brain structures and species in the face of less overall variation in glial cell sizes, with interesting implications for brain physiology. The emerging evidence that the glia/neuron ratio varies uniformly across the different brain structures of mammalian species that diverged as early as 90 million years ago in evolution highlights how fundamental for brain function must be the interaction between glial cells and neurons. GLIA 2014;62:1377–1391

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