Spreading depression sends microglia on Lévy flights

PLoS One. 2011 Apr 26;6(4):e19294. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0019294.


Spreading depression (SD) is thought to cause migraine aura, and perhaps migraine, and includes a transient loss of synaptic activity preceded and followed by increased neuronal excitability. Activated microglia influence neuronal activity and play an important role in homeostatic synaptic scaling via release of cytokines. Furthermore, enhanced neuronal function activates microglia to not only secrete cytokines but also to increase the motility of their branches, with somata remaining stationary. While SD also increases the release of cytokines from microglia, the effects on microglial movement from its synaptic activity fluctuations are unknown. Accordingly, we used time-lapse imaging of rat hippocampal slice cultures to probe for microglial movement associated with SD. We observed that in uninjured brain whole microglial cells moved. The movements were well described by the type of Lévy flight known to be associated with an optimal search pattern. Hours after SD, when synaptic activity rose, microglial cell movement was significantly increased. To test how synaptic activity influenced microglial movement, we enhanced neuronal activity with chemical long-term potentiation or LPS and abolished it with TTX. We found that microglial movement was significantly decreased by enhanced neuronal activity and significantly increased by activity blockade. Finally, application of glutamate and ATP to mimic restoration of synaptic activity in the presence of TTX stopped microglial movement that was otherwise seen with TTX. Thus, synaptic activity retains microglial cells in place and an absence of synaptic activity sends them off to influence wider expanses of brain. Perhaps increased microglial movements after SD are a long-lasting, and thus maladaptive, response in which these cells increase neuronal activity via contact or paracrine signaling, which results in increased susceptibility of larger brain areas to SD. If true, then targeting mechanisms that retard activity-dependent microglial Lévy flights may be a novel means to reduce susceptibility to migraine.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Death / drug effects
  • Cell Movement* / drug effects
  • Cell Shape / drug effects
  • Hippocampus / pathology
  • Microglia / drug effects
  • Microglia / pathology*
  • Migraine Disorders / pathology*
  • Neurons / drug effects
  • Neurons / pathology
  • Paracrine Communication / drug effects
  • Plant Lectins / pharmacology
  • Rats
  • Synapses / drug effects
  • Synapses / pathology


  • Griffonia simplicifolia lectins
  • Plant Lectins