Purpose: To explore the effects of light exposure and deprivation on the distribution and function of microglia in the subretinal space of mice.
Methods: Using a monoclonal antibody, 5D4, that identifies resting, ramified microglia, the distribution and density of microglia in the retina, and the subretinal space were determined by confocal microscopy and by immunohistochemistry of cryopreserved sections of eyes of albino and pigmented mice exposed to diverse levels of light, ranging from complete darkness to intense brightness. Axotomized retinal ganglion cells were retrograde labeled by fluorescent tracer to determine whether the marker colocalizes to 5D4+ cells. Electron microscopy was used to evaluate microglia for evidence of phagocytosis.
Results: 5D4+ microglia in pigmented eyes were limited to the inner retinal layers, but in albino eyes 5D4+ cells were found in the outer retinal layers and subretinal space as well. The subretinal space of eyes of albino mice raised from birth in complete darkness contained few 5D4+ cells, but exposure to light caused the rapid accumulation of 5D4+ cells at this site. 5D4+ cell density in the subretinal space correlated directly with intensity of ambient light. Retrograde labeling of axotomized ganglion cells resulted in 5D4+ cells in the subretinal space that contained the retrograde label. Subretinal microglia contained phagocytized rod outer segment discs. On intense light exposure, 5D4+ cells adopted an active morphology, but failed to express class II major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules.
Conclusions: Light exposure induced retinal microglia migration into the subretinal space in albino mice. Subretinal microglia appeared to augment through phagocytosis the capacity of pigment epithelium to take up the photoreceptor debris of light toxicity. The unexpected presence of these cells in the subretinal space raises questions concerning their potential contribution to immune privilege in this space and to the fate of retinal transplants.