Microglia: A new frontier for synaptic plasticity, learning and memory, and neurodegenerative disease research

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Abstract

Highlights

We focus on emerging roles for microglia in synaptic plasticity, cognition and disease. We outline evidence that ramified microglia, traditionally thought to be functionally “resting” (i.e. quiescent) in the normal brain, in fact are highly dynamic and plastic. Ramified microglia continually and rapidly extend processes, contact synapses in an activity and experience dependent manner, and play a functionally dynamic role in synaptic plasticity, possibly through release of cytokines and growth factors. Ramified microglial also contribute to structural plasticity through the elimination of synapses via phagocytic mechanisms, which is necessary for normal cognition. Microglia have numerous mechanisms to monitor neuronal activity and numerous mechanisms also exist to prevent them transitioning to an activated state, which involves retraction of their surveying processes. Based on the evidence, we suggest that maintaining the ramified state of microglia is essential for normal synaptic and structural plasticity that supports cognition. Further, we propose that change of their ramified morphology and function, as occurs in inflammation associated with numerous neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, disrupts their intricate and essential synaptic functions. In turn altered microglia function could cause synaptic dysfunction and excess synapse loss early in disease, initiating a range of pathologies that follow. We conclude that the future of learning and memory research depends on an understanding of the role of non-neuronal cells and that this should include using sophisticated molecular, cellular, physiological and behavioural approaches combined with imaging to causally link the role of microglia to brain function and disease including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and other neuropsychiatric disorders.

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