Microglia and brain macrophages represent a substantial fraction of the cells present in astrocytic gliomas. Yet, the functional role of microglia in these tumors has remained enigmatic. We have compared rat microglial cells and thymocytes with regard to their ability to present purified CNS proteins, MBP and S100beta, as well as C6 glioma cells to specific T lymphocytes. In addition, a new cytotoxicity assay based on fluorescence activated cell sorting of tumor cells carrying the green fluorescent protein was established. This assay was used to determine the influence of microglial population density and activational state on C6 glioma cell survival in vitro. Microglia were consistently found to present MBP and S100beta less efficiently than thymocytes and appeared to be unable to present C6 glioma cells to cytotoxic T lymphocytes. In addition, high concentrations of microglial cells attenuated the cytotoxic effects of these T cells on C6 glioma cells whereas thymocytes significantly supported their specific killing. It is suggested that defense functions of microglial cells against C6 glioma are severely compromised and that the observed deficiency in antigen presentation may play an important role for astrocytoma growth in vivo.