Microglia are cells of myeloid origin that populate the CNS during early development and form the brain's innate immune cell type. They perform homoeostatic activity in the normal CNS, a function associated with high motility of their ramified processes and their constant phagocytic clearance of cell debris. This debris clearance role is amplified in CNS injury, where there is frank loss of tissue and recruitment of microglia to the injured area. Recent evidence suggests that this phagocytic clearance following injury is more than simply tidying up, but instead plays a fundamental role in facilitating the reorganization of neuronal circuits and triggering repair. Insufficient clearance by microglia, prevalent in several neurodegenerative diseases and declining with ageing, is associated with an inadequate regenerative response. Thus, understanding the mechanism and functional significance of microglial-mediated clearance of tissue debris following injury may open up exciting new therapeutic avenues.