The dynamics of microglial cell activation was studied in freshly prepared rat brain tissue slices. Microglia became activated in the tissue slices, as evidenced by their conversion from a ramified to amoeboid form within several hours in vitro. To define better the cytoarchitectural dynamics underlying microglial activation, we performed direct three-dimensional time-lapse confocal imaging of microglial cells in live brain slices. Microglia in tissue slices were stained with a fluorescent lectin conjugate, FITC-IB(4), and stacks of confocal optical sections through the tissue were collected repeatedly at intervals of 2-5 min for several hours at a time. Morphometric analysis of cells from time-lapse sequences revealed that ramified microglia progress to amoeboid macrophages through a stereotypical sequence of steps. First, in the withdrawal stage, the existing ramified branches of activating microglia do not actively extend or engulf other cells, but instead retract back (mean rate, 0.5-1.5 microm/min) and are completely resorbed into the cell body. Second, in the motility stage, a new set of dynamic protrusions, which can exhibit cycles of rapid extension and retraction (both up to 4 microm/min), abruptly emerges. Sometimes new processes begin to emerge even before the old branches are completely withdrawn. Third, in the locomotory stage, microglia begin translocating within the tissue (up to 118 microm/h) only after the new protrusions emerge. We conclude that the rapid conversion of resting ramified microglia to active amoeboid macrophages is accomplished not by converting quiescent branches to dynamic ones, but rather by replacing existing branches with an entirely new set of highly motile protrusions. This suggests that the ramified branches of resting microglia are normally incapable of rapid morphological dynamics necessary for activated microglial function. More generally, our time-lapse observations identify changes in the dynamic behavior of activating microglia and thereby help define distinct temporal and functional stages of activation for further investigation.
Copyright 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.