Features of bilirubin-induced reactive microglia: from phagocytosis to inflammation

Neurobiol Dis. 2010 Dec;40(3):663-75. doi: 10.1016/j.nbd.2010.08.010. Epub 2010 Aug 19.


Microglia constitute the brain's immunocompetent cells and are intricately implicated in numerous inflammatory processes included in neonatal brain injury. In addition, clearance of tissue debris by microglia is essential for tissue homeostasis and may have a neuroprotective outcome. Since unconjugated bilirubin (UCB) has been proven to induce astroglial immunological activation and neuronal cell death, we addressed the question of whether microglia acquires a reactive phenotype when challenged by UCB and intended to characterize this response. In the present study we report that microglia primary cultures stimulated by UCB react by the acquisition of a phagocytic phenotype that shifted into an inflammatory response characterized by the secretion of the pro-inflammatory cytokines tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-α, interleukin (IL)-1β, and IL-6, upregulation of cyclooxygenase (COX)-2 and increased matrix metalloproteinase (MMP)-2 and -9 activities. Further investigation upon upstream signalling pathways revealed that UCB led to the activation of mitogen-activated protein kinases (MAPKs) and nuclear factor (NF)-κB at an early time point, suggesting that these pathways might underlie both the phagocytic and the inflammatory phenotypes engaged by microglia. Curiously, the phagocytic and inflammatory phenotypes in UCB-activated microglia seem to alternate along time, indicating that microglia reacts towards UCB insult firstly with a phagocytic response, in an attempt to constrain the lesion extent and comprising a neuroprotective measure. Upon prolonged UCB exposure periods, either a shift on global microglia reaction occurred or there could be two distinct sub-populations of microglial cells, one directed at eliminating the damaged cells by phagocytosis, and another that engaged a more delayed inflammatory response. In conclusion, microglial cells are relevant partners to consider during bilirubin encephalopathy and the modulation of its activation might be a promising therapeutic target.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Bilirubin / adverse effects*
  • Bilirubin / immunology
  • Bilirubin / metabolism
  • Blotting, Western
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Enzyme Activation / physiology
  • Gene Expression
  • Inflammation / immunology
  • Inflammation / metabolism*
  • Inflammation / pathology
  • Kernicterus / immunology
  • Kernicterus / metabolism*
  • Kernicterus / pathology
  • Microglia / immunology
  • Microglia / metabolism*
  • Microglia / pathology
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases / metabolism
  • NF-kappa B / metabolism
  • Phagocytosis / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar


  • Cytokines
  • NF-kappa B
  • Mitogen-Activated Protein Kinases
  • Bilirubin