Innate immunity within the central nervous system (CNS) is primarily provided by resident microglia. Microglia are pivotal in immune surveillance and also facilitate the co-ordinated responses between the immune system and the brain. For example, microglia interpret and propagate inflammatory signals that are initiated in the periphery. This transient microglial activation helps mount the appropriate physiological and behavioural response following peripheral infection. With normal ageing, however, microglia develop a more inflammatory phenotype. For instance, in several models of ageing there are increased pro-inflammatory cytokines in the brain and increased expression of inflammatory receptors on microglia. This increased inflammatory status of microglia with ageing is referred to as primed, reactive or sensitized. A modest increase in the inflammatory profile of the CNS and altered microglial function in ageing has behavioural and cognitive consequences. Nonetheless, there are major differences in microglial biology between young and old age when the immune system is challenged and microglia are activated. In this context, microglial activation is amplified and prolonged in the aged brain compared with adults. The cause of this amplified microglial activation may be related to impairments in several key regulatory systems with age that make it more difficult to resolve microglial activation. The consequences of impaired regulation and microglial hyper-activation following immune challenge are exaggerated neuroinflammation, sickness behaviour, depressive-like behaviour and cognitive deficits. Therefore the purpose of this review is to discuss the current understanding of age-associated microglial priming, consequences of priming and reactivity, and the impairments in regulatory systems that may underlie these age-related deficits.
© 2012 The Authors. Neuropathology and Applied Neurobiology © 2012 British Neuropathological Society.