Hansen et al. review the potential dual helpful and harmful roles of microglia in the development and progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Proliferation and activation of microglia in the brain, concentrated around amyloid plaques, is a prominent feature of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Human genetics data point to a key role for microglia in the pathogenesis of AD. The majority of risk genes for AD are highly expressed (and many are selectively expressed) by microglia in the brain. There is mounting evidence that microglia protect against the incidence of AD, as impaired microglial activities and altered microglial responses to β-amyloid are associated with increased AD risk. On the other hand, there is also abundant evidence that activated microglia can be harmful to neurons. Microglia can mediate synapse loss by engulfment of synapses, likely via a complement-dependent mechanism; they can also exacerbate tau pathology and secrete inflammatory factors that can injure neurons directly or via activation of neurotoxic astrocytes. Gene expression profiles indicate multiple states of microglial activation in neurodegenerative disease settings, which might explain the disparate roles of microglia in the development and progression of AD pathology.