Microglia-mediated inflammatory responses have been implicated in the pathogenesis of neuritic plaques in Alzheimer's disease. The strong age association of Alzheimer's disease incidence suggests that events in normal aging may promote such responses. We used immunohistochemistry and computerized image analysis to determine the numbers, size, activation state, and immunoreactive intensity of interleukin-1 alpha-immunoreactive (IL-1 alpha +) microglia in mesial temporal lobe of 20 neurologically normal individuals, 2-80 years of age. We also used Northern analysis to determine tissue levels of IL-1 alpha mRNA in an additional 11 neurologically normal individuals aged 1 day to 78 years. IL-1 alpha + microglia were characterized as primed, enlarged, or phagocytic (enlarged with heterogeneous cytoplasmic contents) based on morphology. These three microglial subtypes showed significant differences in size [27 +/- 1 58 +/- 2 114 +/- 6 (mean +/- SEM) micron 2/cell, respectively, P < 0.001 for each comparison] and in immunoreactive intensity [60 +/- 1 68 +/- 2 79 +/- 2 (arbitrary units), respectively, P < 0.001 or better for each comparison]. There were significant age-associated increases in the total numbers of activated IL-1 alpha + microglia. Among microglial subtypes, there were significant increases in the numbers of enlarged (threefold) and especially phagocytic (elevenfold), but not primed, microglia. Tissue IL-1 alpha mRNA levels were higher in individuals over 60 than in those less than 60 (P < 0.05). The age-associated increases in microglial activation were independent of postmortem interval, patient sex, and the presence of Alzheimer-type 'senile' changes. Age-associated increases in microglial activation and IL-1 expression may contribute to the age-associated increased risk of Alzheimer's disease.