A microglial cell is both a glial cell of the central nervous system and a mononuclear phagocyte, which belongs to the haematopoietic system and is involved in inflammatory and immune responses. As such, microglia face a challenging task. The neurons of the central nervous system cannot divide and be replenished, and therefore need to be protected against pathogens, which is a key role of the immune system, but without collateral damage. In addition, after physical injury, neural cells need restorative support, which is provided by inflammatory responses. Excessive or chronic inflammatory responses can, however, be harmful. How microglia balance these demands, and how their behaviour can be modified to ameliorate disorders of the central nervous system, is becoming clear.