What Is Microglia Neurotoxicity (Not)?

Glia. 2014 Jun;62(6):841-54. doi: 10.1002/glia.22654. Epub 2014 Mar 3.


Microglia most likely appeared early in evolution as they are not only present in vertebrates, but are also found in nervous systems of various nonvertebrate organisms. Mammalian microglia are derived from a specific embryonic, self-renewable myeloid cell population that is throughout lifetime not replaced by peripheral myeloid cells. These phylogenic and ontogenic features suggest that microglia serve vital functions. Yet, microglia often are described as neurotoxic cells, that actively kill (healthy) neurons. Since it is from an evolutionary point of view difficult to understand why an important and vulnerable organ like the brain should host numerous potential killers, we here review the concept of microglia neurotoxicity. On one hand it is discussed that most of our understanding about how microglia kill neurons is based on in vitro experiments or correlative staining studies that suffer from the difficulty to discriminate microglia and peripheral myeloid cells in the diseased brain. On the other hand it is described that a more functional approach by mutating, inactivating or deleting microglia is seldom associated with a beneficial outcome in an acute injury situation, suggesting that microglia are normally important protective elements in the brain. This might change in chronic disease or the aged brain, where; however, it remains to be established whether microglia simply lose their protective capacities or whether microglia become truly neurotoxic cells.

Keywords: activation states; microglia evolution; neuroinflammation; neuronal loss.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging / metabolism
  • Aging / pathology
  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Humans
  • Microglia / chemistry
  • Microglia / metabolism
  • Microglia / pathology*
  • Nervous System Diseases / metabolism
  • Nervous System Diseases / pathology*
  • Nervous System Diseases / prevention & control
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Neurons / pathology*