Microglia are innate immune cells of myeloid origin that take up residence in the central nervous system (CNS) during embryogenesis. While classically regarded as macrophage-like cells, it is becoming increasingly clear that reactive microglia play more diverse roles in the CNS. Microglial "activation" is often used to refer to a single phenotype; however, in this review we consider that a continuum of microglial activation exists, with phagocytic response (innate activation) at one end and antigen presenting cell function (adaptive activation) at the other. Where activated microglia fall in this spectrum seems to be highly dependent on the type of stimulation provided. We begin by addressing the classical roles of peripheral innate immune cells including macrophages and dendritic cells, which seem to define the edges of this continuum. We then discuss various types of microglial stimulation, including Toll-like receptor engagement by pathogen-associated molecular patterns, microglial challenge with myelin epitopes or Alzheimer's beta-amyloid in the presence or absence of CD40L co-stimulation, and Alzheimer disease "immunotherapy". Based on the wide spectrum of stimulus-specific microglial responses, we interpret these cells as immune cells that demonstrate remarkable plasticity following activation. This interpretation has relevance for neurodegenerative/neuroinflammatory diseases where reactive microglia play an etiological role; in particular viral/bacterial encephalitis, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer disease.