Microglial cells constitute the resident macrophage population of the CNS. Recent in vivo studies have shown that microglia carry out active tissue scanning, which challenges the traditional notion of 'resting' microglia in the normal brain. Transformation of microglia to reactive states in response to pathology has been known for decades as microglial activation, but seems to be more diverse and dynamic than ever anticipated--in both transcriptional and nontranscriptional features and functional consequences. This may help to explain why engagement of microglia can be either neuroprotective or neurotoxic, resulting in containment or aggravation of disease progression. Moreover, little is known about the heterogeneity of microglial responses in different pathologic contexts that results from regional adaptations or from the progression of a disease. In this review, we focus on several key observations that illustrate the multi-faceted activities of microglia in the normal and pathologic brain.