Astrocytes are a type of glial cell that tile the CNS. They interact with multiple cell types, including neurons, glial cells and blood vessels, and are involved or implicated in brain disorders. Progress has been made in understanding astrocytes, but the field lacks detailed information concerning how they perform their multifarious functions, and how and when they influence the operations of the neural circuits with which they interact. One recognized bottleneck to progress has been the paucity of reliable tools with which to explore astrocytes within the adult vertebrate CNS in vivo. However, improved tools for molecular, genetic, morphological and physiological assessments have been developed recently or have been adapted from their original purposes to study neurons and are now being used to systematically document and interrogate astrocyte biology in vivo. These tools, their uses and limitations, and the insights that they afford are summarized in this Review.
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