This study examines the relationship between the appearance of degenerative changes in synaptic terminals and axons and the activation of microglia in denervated neuropil regions of normal mice of the C57BL/6 strain and mutant mice (Wld(S)), in which Wallerian degeneration is substantially delayed. The time course of degenerative changes in synaptic terminals and axons was assessed using selective silver staining. Microglial cells were identified by immunostaining for Mac-1, a monoclonal antibody to the CR3 complement receptor, and by histochemical staining for nucleoside diphosphatase (NDPase). Increased argyrophilia, indicative of degenerative changes, was evident as early as 1 day postlesion in normal mice, but was not seen until 6-8 days in mice with the Wld(S) mutation. Microglial activation in normal C57BL/6 mice was evident by 24 hours postlesion, as evidenced by increased immunostaining for Mac-1, increased histochemical staining for NDPase, and morphological changes indicative of an activated phenotype (short, thick processes). Quantitative evaluation of immunostaining for Mac-1 revealed that peak activation occurred between 2 and 6 days postlesion with a return to a quiescent phenotype by 12 days. In contrast, the microglial response was significantly delayed and prolonged in mice bearing the Wld(S) mutation. Activated microglia were not seen within the deafferented area until 6 to 8 days postlesion and peak activation occurred between 12 and 20 days postlesion. These data suggest that the response of microglia in denervated neuropil zones is triggered by the same types of degenerative changes that cause increased argyrophilia as detected by selective silver staining methods.