A subpopulation of embryonic microglia respond to maternal stress and influence nearby neural progenitors

Dev Cell. 2021 May 3;56(9):1326-1345.e6. doi: 10.1016/j.devcel.2021.03.018. Epub 2021 Apr 21.


The interplay between hypothalamic neurons and microglia as they integrate stressors to regulate homeostasis is of growing interest. We asked if microglia in the embryonic hypothalamus were likewise stress responsive and, if so, whether their precocious activation perturbs nearby neural stem cell (NSC) programs. We performed single-cell transcriptomics to define embryonic hypothalamic microglia heterogeneity and identified four microglial subsets, including a subpopulation adjacent to NSCs that was responsive to gestational cold stress. Stress exposure elevated CCL3 and CCL4 secretion, but only in male brains, and ex vivo CCL4 treatment of hypothalamic NSCs altered proliferation and differentiation. Concomitantly, gestational stress decreased PVN oxytocin neurons only in male embryos, which was reversed by microglia depletion. Adult offspring exposed to gestational stress displayed altered social behaviors, which was likewise microglia dependent, but only in males. Collectively, immature hypothalamic microglia play an unappreciated role in translating maternal stressors to sexually dimorphic perturbation of neurodevelopmental programs.

Keywords: development; embryogenesis; hypothalamus; microglia; neural progenitors; stress; transcriptional profiling.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't