Recently, it has been discovered that the working memory deficits induced by exposure to chronic stress can be prevented by treating stressed animals with minocycline, a putative inhibitor of microglial activity. One of the pressing issues that now requires clarification is exactly how exposure to chronic stress modifies microglial morphology, this being a significant issue as microglial morphology is tightly coupled with their function. To examine how chronic stress alters microglial morphology, we digitally reconstructed microglia within the rat medial prefrontal cortex. Our analysis revealed that stress increased the internal complexity of microglia, enhancing ramification (i.e. branching) without altering the overall area occupied by the cell and that this effect was more pronounced in larger cells. We subsequently determined that minocycline treatment largely abolished the pro-ramifying effects of stress. With respect to mechanisms, we could not find any evidence of increased inflammation or neurodegeneration (interleukin-1β, MHC-II, CD68, terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase dUTP nick end labeling, and activated caspase-3). We did, however, find that chronic stress markedly increased the expression of β1-integrin (CD29), a protein previously implicated in microglial ramification. Together, these findings highlight that increased ramification of microglia may represent an important neurobiological mechanism through which microglia mediate the behavioral effects of chronic psychological stress.
Keywords: Iba-1; layer II/III; morphology; ramification; β1-integrin.