Macrophage phenotypes in atherosclerosis

Immunol Rev. 2014 Nov;262(1):153-66. doi: 10.1111/imr.12218.


Initiation and progression of atherosclerosis depend on local inflammation and accumulation of lipids in the vascular wall. Although many cells are involved in the development and progression of atherosclerosis, macrophages are fundamental contributors. For nearly a decade, the phenotypic heterogeneity and plasticity of macrophages has been studied. In atherosclerotic lesions, macrophages are submitted to a large variety of micro-environmental signals, such as oxidized lipids and cytokines, which influence the phenotypic polarization and activation of macrophages resulting in a dynamic plasticity. The macrophage phenotype spectrum is characterized, at the extremes, by the classical M1 macrophages induced by T-helper 1 (Th-1) cytokines and by the alternative M2 macrophages induced by Th-2 cytokines. M2 macrophages can be further classified into M2a, M2b, M2c, and M2d subtypes. More recently, additional plaque-specific macrophage phenotypes have been identified, termed as Mox, Mhem, and M4. Understanding the mechanisms and functional consequences of the phenotypic heterogeneity of macrophages will contribute to determine their potential role in lesion development and plaque stability. Furthermore, research on macrophage plasticity could lead to novel therapeutic approaches to counteract cardiovascular diseases such as atherosclerosis. The present review summarizes our current knowledge on macrophage subsets in atherosclerotic plaques and mechanism behind the modulation of the macrophage phenotype.

Keywords: atherosclerosis; chemokines; cytokines; inflammation; lipids; macrophages; polarization.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Atherosclerosis / etiology*
  • Atherosclerosis / pathology
  • Cell Movement
  • Humans
  • Macrophage Activation
  • Macrophages / immunology*
  • Macrophages / metabolism*
  • Phenotype*
  • Plaque, Atherosclerotic / immunology
  • Plaque, Atherosclerotic / metabolism
  • Plaque, Atherosclerotic / pathology
  • Transcription Factors / metabolism


  • Transcription Factors