A loss of mature microglial markers without immune activation in schizophrenia

Glia. 2021 May;69(5):1251-1267. doi: 10.1002/glia.23962. Epub 2021 Jan 7.


Microglia, the immune cells of the brain, are important for neurodevelopment and have been hypothesized to play a role in the pathogenesis of schizophrenia (SCZ). Although previous postmortem studies pointed toward presence of microglial activation, this view has been challenged by more recent hypothesis-driven and hypothesis-free analyses. The aim of the present study is to further understand the observed microglial changes in SCZ. We first performed a detailed meta-analysis on studies that analyzed microglial cell density, microglial morphology, and expression of microglial-specific markers. We then further explored findings from the temporal cortex by performing immunostainings and qPCRs on an additional dataset. A random effect meta-analysis showed that the density of microglial cells was unaltered in SCZ (ES: 0.144 95% CI: 0.102 to 0.390, p = .250), and clear changes in microglial morphology were also absent. The expression of several microglial specific genes, such as CX3CR1, CSF1R, IRF8, OLR1, and TMEM119 was decreased in SCZ (ES: -0.417 95% CI: -0.417 to -0.546, p < .0001), consistent with genome-wide transcriptome meta-analysis results. These results indicate a change in microglial phenotype rather than density, which was validated with the use of TMEM119/Iba1 immunostainings on temporal cortex of a separate cohort. Changes in microglial gene expression were overlapping between SCZ and other psychiatric disorders, but largely opposite from changes reported in Alzheimer's disease. This distinct microglial phenotype provides a crucial molecular hallmark for future research into the role of microglia in SCZ and other psychiatric disorders.

Keywords: gene expression; immunology; microglia; postmortem; schizophrenia.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease*
  • Biomarkers
  • Brain
  • Gene Expression Profiling
  • Humans
  • Microglia
  • Schizophrenia* / genetics


  • Biomarkers