Differential accumulation of storage bodies with aging defines discrete subsets of microglia in the healthy brain

Elife. 2020 Jun 24;9:e57495. doi: 10.7554/eLife.57495.


To date, microglia subsets in the healthy CNS have not been identified. Utilizing autofluorescence (AF) as a discriminating parameter, we identified two novel microglia subsets in both mice and non-human primates, termed autofluorescence-positive (AF+) and negative (AF-). While their proportion remained constant throughout most adult life, the AF signal linearly and specifically increased in AF+ microglia with age and correlated with a commensurate increase in size and complexity of lysosomal storage bodies, as detected by transmission electron microscopy and LAMP1 levels. Post-depletion repopulation kinetics revealed AF- cells as likely precursors of AF+ microglia. At the molecular level, the proteome of AF+ microglia showed overrepresentation of endolysosomal, autophagic, catabolic, and mTOR-related proteins. Mimicking the effect of advanced aging, genetic disruption of lysosomal function accelerated the accumulation of storage bodies in AF+ cells and led to impaired microglia physiology and cell death, suggestive of a mechanistic convergence between aging and lysosomal storage disorders.

Keywords: CLN3; TREM2; aging; autofluorescence; immunology; inflammation; lysosomal storage disorder; microglia; mouse; neuroscience; rhesus macaque.

Plain language summary

Microglia are a unique type of immune cell found in the brain and spinal cord. Their job is to support neurons, defend against invading microbes, clear debris and remove dying neurons by engulfing them. Despite these diverse roles, scientists have long believed that there is only a single type of microglial cell, which adapts to perform whatever task is required. But more recent evidence suggests that this is not the whole story. Burns et al. now show that we can distinguish two subtypes of microglia based on a property called autofluorescence. This is the tendency of cells and tissues to emit light of one color after they have absorbed light of another. Burns et al. show that about 70% of microglia in healthy mouse and monkey brains display autofluorescence. However, about 30% of microglia show no autofluorescence at all. This suggests that there are two subtypes of microglia: autofluorescence-positive and autofluorescence-negative. But does this difference have any implications for how the microglia behave? Autofluorescence occurs because specific substances inside the cells absorb light. In the case of microglia, electron microscopy revealed that autofluorescence was caused by structures within the cell called lysosomal storage bodies accumulating certain materials. The stored material included fat molecules, cholesterol crystals and other substances that are typical of disorders that affect these compartments. Burns et al. show that autofluorescent microglia contain larger amounts of proteins involved in storing and digesting waste materials than their non-autofluorescent counterparts. Moreover, as the brain ages, lysosomal storage material builds up inside autofluorescent microglia, which increase their autofluorescence as a result. Unfortunately, this accumulation of cellular debris also makes it harder for the microglia to perform their tasks. Increasing evidence suggests that the accumulation of waste materials inside the brain contributes to diseases of aging. Future work should examine how autofluorescent microglia behave in animal models of neurodegenerative diseases. If these cells do help protect the brain from the effects of aging, targeting them could be a new strategy for treating aging-related diseases.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Aging*
  • Animals
  • Autophagy
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Endosomes / metabolism
  • Female
  • Lysosome-Associated Membrane Glycoproteins / metabolism
  • Lysosomes / metabolism
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Male
  • Membrane Glycoproteins / metabolism
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Microglia / metabolism*
  • Microscopy, Electron, Transmission
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • Myelin Sheath / chemistry
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Phagocytosis
  • Proteomics
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / metabolism
  • Receptors, Fc / metabolism
  • Receptors, Immunologic / metabolism


  • Lamp1 protein, mouse
  • Lysosome-Associated Membrane Glycoproteins
  • Membrane Glycoproteins
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Receptors, Fc
  • Receptors, Immunologic
  • Trem2 protein, mouse

Grant support

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.