Immune and behavioral consequences of microglial reactivity in the aged brain

Integr Comp Biol. 2009 Sep;49(3):254-66. doi: 10.1093/icb/icp009. Epub 2009 Apr 23.


Bidirectional communication between the immune system and the brain is essential for mounting the appropriate immunological, physiological, and behavioral responses to immune activation. Aging, however, may impair this important bi-directional interaction. In support of this notion, peripheral infection in the elderly is associated with an increased frequency of behavioral and cognitive complications. Recent findings in animal models of aging and neurodegenerative disease indicate that microglia, innate immune cells of the brain, become primed or reactive. Understanding age- and disease-associated alterations in microglia is important because glia (microglia and astrocytes) play an integral role in propagating inflammatory signals that are initiated in the periphery. In this capacity, brain glia produce inflammatory cytokines that target neuronal substrates and elicit a sickness-behavior syndrome that is normally beneficial to the host organism. Increased reactivity of microglia sets the stage for an exaggerated neuroinflammatory cytokine response following activation of the peripheral innate immune system, which may underlie subsequent long-lasting behavioral and cognitive deficits. In support of this premise, recent findings indicate that stimulation of the peripheral immune system in aged rodents causes exaggerated neuroinflammation that is paralleled by cognitive impairment, prolonged sickness, and depressive-like complications. Therefore, the purpose of this review is to discuss the new evidence that age-associated priming of microglia could play a pathophysiological role in exaggerated behavioral and cognitive sequelae to peripheral infection.