Microglia: key elements in neural development, plasticity, and pathology

J Neuroimmune Pharmacol. 2013 Jun;8(3):494-509. doi: 10.1007/s11481-013-9434-z. Epub 2013 Jan 27.


A century after Cajal identified a "third element" of the nervous system, many issues have been clarified about the identity and function of one of its major components, the microglia. Here, we review recent findings by microgliologists, highlighting results from imaging studies that are helping provide new views of microglial behavior and function. In vivo imaging in the intact adult rodent CNS has revolutionized our understanding of microglial behaviors in situ and has raised speculation about their function in the uninjured adult brain. Imaging studies in ex vivo mammalian tissue preparations and in intact model organisms including zebrafish are providing insights into microglial behaviors during brain development. These data suggest that microglia play important developmental roles in synapse remodeling, developmental apoptosis, phagocytic clearance, and angiogenesis. Because microglia also contribute to pathology, including neurodevelopmental and neurobehavioral disorders, ischemic injury, and neuropathic pain, promising new results raise the possibility of leveraging microglia for therapeutic roles. Finally, exciting recent work is addressing unanswered questions regarding the nature of microglial-neuronal communication. While it is now apparent that microglia play diverse roles in neural development, behavior, and pathology, future research using neuroimaging techniques will be essential to more fully exploit these intriguing cellular targets for effective therapeutic intervention applied to a variety of conditions.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / embryology*
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / physiology
  • Brain Ischemia / pathology
  • Cell Movement / physiology
  • Humans
  • Microglia / pathology
  • Microglia / physiology*
  • Neurogenesis / physiology*
  • Neuronal Plasticity / physiology*
  • Stroke / pathology