We have examined the distribution of microglia in the normal adult mouse brain using immunocytochemical detection of the macrophage specific plasma membrane glycoprotein F4/80. We were interested to learn whether the distribution of microglia in the adult brain is related to regional variation in the magnitude of cell death during development and resulting monocyte recruitment, or whether the adult distribution is influenced by other local microenvironmental cues. We further investigated the possibility that microglia are sensitive to their microenvironment by studying their morphology in different brain regions. Microglia are present in large numbers in all major divisions of the brain but are not uniformly distributed. There is a more than five-fold variation in the density of immunostained microglial processes between different regions. More microglia are found in gray matter than white. Particularly, densely populated areas include the hippocampus, olfactory telencephalon, basal ganglia and substantia nigra. In comparison, the less densely populated areas include fibre tracts, cerebellum and much of the brainstem. The cerebral cortex, thalamus and hypothalamus have average cell densities. There was no simple relationship between the amount of developmental cell death and the adult distribution of microglia. An estimate of the total number of microglia in the adult mouse brain, 3.5 x 10(6), is comparable to that found in the liver on a weight for weight basis. However, microglia possess up to twice the surface area of membrane of Kupffer cells, the large resident macrophages of the liver. The proportion of cells that were microglia varied from 5% in the cortex and corpus callosum, to 12% in the substantia nigra. Microglia vary in morphology depending on their location. They were broadly classified into three categories. Compact cells are rounded cells, sometimes with one or two short thick limbs, bearing short processes ("bristles"). They resemble Kupffer cells of the liver and are found exclusively in sites lacking a blood-brain barrier. Longitudinally branched cells are found in fibre tracts and possess several long processes which are usually aligned parallel to, or more occasionally perpendicular to, the longitudinal axis of the nerve fibres. Radially branched cells are found throughout the neuropil. They can be extremely elaborate and there is wide variation in the length and complexity of branching of the processes. There was no evidence of monocyte-like cells in the adult CNS. The systematic variation in microglial morphology provides further evidence that these cells are sensitive to their microenvironment.