Overview of General and Discriminating Markers of Differential Microglia Phenotypes

Front Cell Neurosci. 2020 Aug 6;14:198. doi: 10.3389/fncel.2020.00198. eCollection 2020.


Inflammatory processes and microglia activation accompany most of the pathophysiological diseases in the central nervous system. It is proven that glial pathology precedes and even drives the development of multiple neurodegenerative conditions. A growing number of studies point out the importance of microglia in brain development as well as in physiological functioning. These resident brain immune cells are divergent from the peripherally infiltrated macrophages, but their precise in situ discrimination is surprisingly difficult. Microglial heterogeneity in the brain is especially visible in their morphology and cell density in particular brain structures but also in the expression of cellular markers. This often determines their role in physiology or pathology of brain functioning. The species differences between rodent and human markers add complexity to the whole picture. Furthermore, due to activation, microglia show a broad spectrum of phenotypes ranging from the pro-inflammatory, potentially cytotoxic M1 to the anti-inflammatory, scavenging, and regenerative M2. A precise distinction of specific phenotypes is nowadays essential to study microglial functions and tissue state in such a quickly changing environment. Due to the overwhelming amount of data on multiple sets of markers that is available for such studies, the choice of appropriate markers is a scientific challenge. This review gathers, classifies, and describes known and recently discovered protein markers expressed by microglial cells in their different phenotypes. The presented microglia markers include qualitative and semi-quantitative, general and specific, surface and intracellular proteins, as well as secreted molecules. The information provided here creates a comprehensive and practical guide through the current knowledge and will facilitate the choosing of proper, more specific markers for detailed studies on microglia and neuroinflammatory mechanisms in various physiological as well as pathological conditions. Both basic research and clinical medicine need clearly described and validated molecular markers of microglia phenotype, which are essential in diagnostics, treatment, and prevention of diseases engaging glia activation.

Keywords: M1/M2 phenotype; infiltrating macrophages; inflammation; microglial heterogeneity; neurotoxicity; polarization; regeneration.