Microglia are a type of glial cell that are the resident macrophages of the brain, and thus act as the first and main form of active immune defense in the central nervous system (CNS). Microglia constitute 20% of the total glial cell population within the brain. Microglia (and astrocytes) are distributed in large non-overlapping regions throughout the brain and spinal cord. Microglia are constantly moving and analyzing the CNS for damaged neurons, plaques, and infectious agents. The brain and spinal cord are considered “immune privileged” organs in that they are separated from the rest of the body by a series of endothelial cells known as the blood-brain barrier, which prevents most infections from reaching the vulnerable nervous tissue.
When infectious agents cross the blood-brain barrier, microglia cells must react quickly to increase inflammation and destroy the infectious agents before they damage the sensitive neural tissue. Due to the unavailability of antibodies from the rest of the body (few antibodies cross the blood brain barrier due to their large size), microglia must be able to recognize foreign bodies, swallow them, and act as antigen-presenting cells activating T-cells. Since this process must be done quickly to prevent potentially fatal damage, microglia are extremely sensitive to even small pathological changes in the CNS. They achieve this sensitivity in part by having unique potassium channels that respond to even small changes in extracellular potassium.
Microglial cells differentiate in the bone marrow from hematopoietic stem cells, the progenitors of all blood cells. During hematopoiesis, some of these stem cells differentiate into monocytes and travel from the bone marrow to the brain, where they settle and further differentiate into microglia.