Microglia transform from ameboid to ramified cells during development and display an ameboid appearance again under certain pathological conditions. Some cytokines produced by astrocytes may be responsible for the microglial transformation. In the present study, we compared the effects of cytokines, granulocyte/macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM-CSF), macrophage colony-stimulating factor (M-CSF), and interleukin-3 (IL-3) on the morphology of rat cultured microglia. For quantitative evaluation, we employed "transformation index" as calculated by (perimeter of cell)2/4 pi (cell area). GM-CSF facilitated the ramification of cultured rat microglia, which was effectively induced in a serum-free medium. However, M-CSF and IL-3 did not induce the ramification. A certain serum adhesion protein (possibly vitronectin) as well as other high molecular weight substances in fetal calf serum inhibited the GM-CSF-induced microglial ramification. Among ordinary supplements for a chemically defined medium, progesterone, insulin, and a high concentration of glucose suppressed the ramification. These findings suggest that GM-CSF may be involved in microglial ramification and that many kinds of supplements that are added to culture media profoundly affect the morphology of microglial cells.