Unconjugated bilirubin activates and damages microglia

J Neurosci Res. 2006 Jul;84(1):194-201. doi: 10.1002/jnr.20857.


Microglia are the resident immune cells of the brain and are the principal source of cytokines produced during central nervous system inflammation. We have previously shown that increased levels of unconjugated bilirubin (UCB), which can be detrimental to the central nervous system during neonatal life, induce the secretion of inflammatory cytokines and glutamate by astrocytes. Nevertheless, the effect of UCB on microglia has never been investigated. Hence, the main goal of the present study was to evaluate whether UCB leads to microglial activation and to the release of the cytokines tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha, interleukin (IL)-1beta, and IL-6. Additionally, we investigated the effects of UCB on glutamate efflux and cell death. The results showed that UCB induces morphological changes characteristic of activated microglia and the release of high levels of TNF-alpha, IL-1beta, and IL-6 in a concentration-dependent manner. In addition, UCB triggered extracellular accumulation of glutamate and an increased cell death by apoptosis and necrosis. These results demonstrate, for the first time, that UCB is toxic to microglial cells and point to microglia as an important target of UCB in the central nervous system. Moreover, they suggest that UCB-induced cytokine production, by mediating cell injury, can further contribute to exacerbate neurototoxicity. Interestingly, microglia cells are much more responsive to UCB than astrocytes. Collectively, these data indicate that microglia may play an important role in the pathogenesis of encephalopathy during severe hyperbilirubinemia.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Bilirubin / pharmacology*
  • Cell Death / drug effects
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cytokines / metabolism*
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Gene Expression / drug effects
  • Glutamic Acid / metabolism
  • Interleukin-1 / metabolism
  • Interleukin-6 / metabolism
  • Microglia / drug effects*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / metabolism


  • Cytokines
  • Interleukin-1
  • Interleukin-6
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha
  • Glutamic Acid
  • Bilirubin