The special relationship: glia-neuron interactions in the neuroendocrine hypothalamus
Natural fluctuations in physiological conditions require adaptive responses involving rapid and reversible structural and functional changes in the hypothalamic neuroendocrine circuits that control homeostasis. Here, we discuss the data that implicate hypothalamic glia in the control of hypothalamic neuroendocrine circuits, specifically neuron-glia interactions in the regulation of neurosecretion as well as neuronal excitability. Mechanistically, the morphological plasticity displayed by distal processes of astrocytes, pituicytes and tanycytes modifies the geometry and diffusion properties of the extracellular space. These changes alter the relationship between glial cells of the hypothalamus and adjacent neuronal elements, especially at specialized intersections such as synapses and neurohaemal junctions. The structural alterations in turn lead to functional plasticity that alters the release and spread of neurotransmitters, neuromodulators and gliotransmitters, as well as the activity of discrete glial signalling pathways that mediate feedback by peripheral signals to the hypothalamus. An understanding of the contributions of these and other non-neuronal cell types to hypothalamic neuroendocrine function is thus critical both to understand physiological processes such as puberty, the maintenance of bodily homeostasis and ageing and to develop novel therapeutic strategies for dysfunctions of these processes, such as infertility and metabolic disorders.