Scientists have, for the first time, characterized the molecular markers that make the brain’s front lines of immune defense—cells called microglia—unique. In the process, they discovered further evidence that microglia may play roles in a variety of neurodegenerative and psychiatric illnesses, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases as well as schizophrenia, autism and depression.
“Microglia are the immune cells of the brain, but how they function in the human brain is not well understood,” says Rusty Gage, professor in Salk’s Laboratory of Genetics, the Vi and John Adler Chair for Research on Age-Related Neurodegenerative Disease, and a senior author of the new work. “Our work not only provides links to diseases but offers a jumping off point to better understand the basic biology of these cells.”
Genes that have previously been linked to neurological diseases are turned on at higher levels in microglia compared to other brain cells, the team reported in Science on May 25, 2017. While the link between microglia and a number of disorders has been explored in the past, the new study offers a molecular basis for this connection.
“These studies represent the first systematic effort to molecularly decode microglia,” says Christopher Glass, a Professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and Professor of Medicine at University of California San Diego, also senior author of the paper. “Our findings provide the foundations for understanding the underlying mechanisms that determine beneficial or pathological functions of these cells.”