Phagocytosis of apoptotic inflammatory cells by microglia and modulation by different cytokines: mechanism for removal of apoptotic cells in the inflamed nervous system

Glia. 2001 Jan;33(1):87-95. doi: 10.1002/1098-1136(20010101)33:1<87::aid-glia1008>;2-s.


Apoptosis of autoaggressive T cells in the central nervous system (CNS) is an effective, nonphlogistic mechanism for the termination of autoimmune inflammation in experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE). The clearance of apoptotic leukocytes by tissue-specific phagocytes is a critical event in the resolution of the inflammatory attack. To investigate the role of microglia in the removal of apoptotic cells and potential regulatory mechanisms of microglial phagocytosis, an in vitro phagocytosis assay was established, using Lewis rat microglia. Microglia exhibited a high capacity for the uptake of apoptotic autologous thymocytes, as well as apoptotic encephalitogenic myelin basic protein (MBP)-specific T cells, in contrast to nonapoptotic target cells. Pretreatment of microglia with interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma) raised the proportion of microglia capable of phagocytosing apoptotic cells to 75% above the untreated controls. The increased phagocytic activity was selective for apoptotic target cells and was not dependent on phosphatidylserine-mediated recognition mechanisms. In contrast, preincubation of microglia with interleukin-4 (IL-4) inhibited the uptake of apoptotic cells, whereas tumor-necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-alpha) and transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta) did not alter phagocytosis. Phagocytic clearance of apoptotic inflammatory cells by microglia may be an important mechanism for the termination of autoimmune inflammation in the CNS. Augmentation of microglial phagocytosis by the Th-1-type cytokine IFN-gamma suggests a feedback mechanism for the accelerated clearance of the inflammatory infiltrate in the CNS.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Apoptosis / physiology*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cytokines / immunology
  • Cytokines / pharmacology*
  • Encephalitis / immunology*
  • Encephalitis / physiopathology
  • Interferon-gamma / pharmacology
  • Interleukin-4 / pharmacology
  • Microglia / drug effects
  • Microglia / immunology*
  • Myelin Basic Protein / immunology
  • Phagocytosis / drug effects
  • Phagocytosis / physiology*
  • Phosphatidylserines / metabolism
  • Rats
  • Rats, Inbred Lew
  • T-Lymphocytes / drug effects
  • T-Lymphocytes / immunology*
  • Thymus Gland / cytology
  • Thymus Gland / immunology
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta / pharmacology
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / pharmacology


  • Cytokines
  • Myelin Basic Protein
  • Phosphatidylserines
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha
  • Interleukin-4
  • Interferon-gamma