Neuroinflammation: the devil is in the details

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There is significant interest in understanding inflammatory responses within the brain and spinal cord. Inflammatory responses that are centralized within the brain and spinal cord are generally referred to as ‘neuroinflammatory’. Aspects of neuroinflammation vary within the context of disease, injury, infection, or stress. The context, course, and duration of these inflammatory responses are all critical aspects in the understanding of these processes and their corresponding physiological, biochemical, and behavioral consequences. Microglia, innate immune cells of the CNS, play key roles in mediating these neuroinflammatory responses. Because the connotation of neuroinflammation is inherently negative and maladaptive, the majority of research focus is on the pathological aspects of neuroinflammation. There are, however, several degrees of neuroinflammatory responses, some of which are positive. In many circumstances including CNS injury, there is a balance of inflammatory and intrinsic repair processes that influences functional recovery. In addition, there are several other examples where communication between the brain and immune system involves neuroinflammatory processes that are beneficial and adaptive. The purpose of this review is to distinguish different variations of neuroinflammation in a context-specific manner and detail both positive and negative aspects of neuroinflammatory processes.

In this review, we will use brain and spinal cord injury, stress, aging, and other inflammatory events to illustrate the potential harm and benefits inherent to neuroinflammation. Context, course, and duration of the inflammation are highly important to the interpretation of these events, and we aim to provide insight into this by detailing several commonly studied insults.

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