Microglial cells fulfill a variety of different tasks within the CNS mainly related to both immune response and maintaining homeostasis. The following are some of the major known functions carried out by these cells.
In addition to being very sensitive to small changes in their environment, each microglial cell also physically surveys its domain on a regular basis. This action is carried out in the ameboid and resting states. While moving through its set region, if the microglial cell finds any foreign material, damaged cells, apoptotic cells, neurofibrillary tangles, DNA fragments, or plaques it will activate and phagocytose the material or cell. In this manner microglial cells also act as “housekeepers”, cleaning up random cellular debris. During developmental wiring of the brain, microglial cells play a large role regulating numbers of neural precursor cells and removing apoptotic neurons. There is also evidence that microglia can refine synaptic circuitry by engulfing and eliminating synapses. Post development, the majority of dead or apoptotic cells are found in the cerebral cortex and the subcortical white matter. This may explain why the majority of ameboid microglial cells are found within the “fountains of microglia” in the cerebral cortex.
The main role of microglia, phagocytosis, involves the engulfing of various materials. Engulfed materials generally consist of cellular debris, lipids, and apoptotic cells in the non-inflamed state, and invading virus, bacteria, or other foreign materials in the inflamed state. Once the microglial cell is “full” it stops phagocytic activity and changes into a relatively non-reactive gitter cell.
A large part of microglial cell’s role in the brain is maintaining homeostasis in non-infected regions and promoting inflammation in infected or damaged tissue. Microglia accomplish this through an extremely complicated series of extracellular signaling molecules which allow them to communicate with other microglia, astrocytes, nerves, T-cells, and myeloid progenitor cells. As mentioned above the cytokine IFN-γ can be used to activate microglial cells. In addition, after becoming activated with IFN-γ, microglia also release more IFN-γ into the extracellular space. This activates more microglia and starts a cytokine induced activation cascade rapidly activating all nearby microglia. Microglia-produced TNF-α causes neural tissue to undergo apoptosis and increases inflammation. IL-8 promotes B-cell growth and differentiation, allowing it to assist microglia in fighting infection. Another cytokine, IL-1, inhibits the cytokines IL-10 and TGF-β, which downregulate antigen presentation and pro-inflammatory signaling. Additional dendritic cells and T-cells are recruited to the site of injury through the microglial production of the chemotactic molecules like MDC, IL-8, and MIP-3β. Finally, PGE2 and other prostanoids prevent chronic inflammation by inhibiting microglial pro-inflammatory response and downregulating Th1 (T-helper cell) response.
As mentioned above, resident non-activated microglia act as poor antigen presenting cells due to their lack of MHC class I/II proteins. Upon activation they rapidly uptake MHC class I/II proteins and quickly become efficient antigen presenters. In some cases, microglia can also be activated by IFN-γ to present antigens, but do not function as effectively as if they had undergone uptake of MHC class I/II proteins. During inflammation, T-cells cross the blood–brain barrier thanks to specialized surface markers and then directly bind to microglia in order to receive antigens. Once they have been presented with antigens, T-cells go on to fulfill a variety of roles including pro-inflammatory recruitment, formation of immunomemories, secretion of cytotoxic materials, and direct attacks on the plasma membranes of foreign cells.
In addition to being able to destroy infectious organisms through cell to cell contact via phagocytosis, microglia can also release a variety of cytotoxic substances. Microglia in culture secrete large amounts of hydrogen peroxide and nitric oxide in a process known as ‘respiratory burst‘. Both of these chemicals can directly damage cells and lead to neuronal cell death. Proteases secreted by microglia catabolise specific proteins causing direct cellular damage, while cytokines like IL-1 promote demyelination of neuronal axons. Finally, microglia can injure neurons through NMDA receptor-mediated processes by secreting glutamate, aspartate and quinolinic acid. Cytotoxic secretion is aimed at destroying infected neurons, virus, and bacteria, but can also cause large amounts of collateral neural damage. As a result, chronic inflammatory response can result in large scale neural damage as the microglia ravage the brain in an attempt to destroy the invading infection.
In a phenomenon first noticed in spinal lesions by Blinzinger and Kreutzberg in 1968, post-inflammation microglia remove the branches from nerves near damaged tissue. This helps promote regrowth and remapping of damaged neural circuitry.
Promotion of repair
Post-inflammation, microglia undergo several steps to promote regrowth of neural tissue. These include synaptic stripping, secretion of anti-inflammatory cytokines, recruitment of neurons and astrocytes to the damaged area, and formation of gitter cells. Without microglial cells regrowth and remapping would be considerably slower in the resident areas of the CNS and almost impossible in many of the vascular systems surrounding the brain and eyes.