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Headmasters: Microglial regulation of learning and memory in health and disease

1 Epigenetics & Neurobiology Unit, European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Monterotondo, Italy
2 Department of Neurology, University Medical Center of Freiburg, Germany
3 Institute of Neuropathology, University Medical Center of Freiburg, Germany
4 Faculty of Biology, University of Freiburg, Germany
5 Cluster of Excellence BrainLinks-BrainTools, University of Freiburg, Germany

Microglia are mononuclear phagocytes that reside throughout the lifetime of the animal in the central nervous system (CNS). Originating from the yolk sac, microglial progenitors infiltrate the developing brain anlage even before the formation of the neural network. Mature microglial cells persist by slow rates of self-renewal that vary across brain regions. Eminent studies in the recent decade have highlighted a role for steady state microglia in neurogenesis, synaptic pruning, and formation and maintenance of connectivity within the CNS, which are critical to learning and memory functions. Activity- and learning-dependent synaptic remodeling by microglia has been described in various contexts. Molecular pathways, including signaling through fractalkine CX3CL1 and its receptor CX3CR1, transforming growth factor-beta, classical complement system, colony-stimulating factor 1 receptor, adaptor protein DAP12, and brain-derived neurotropic factor, have been proposed to be important mediators of synaptic plasticity regulated by microglia. Reactive, dysfunctional, or aged microglia are thought to impact learning and memory, and are implicated in human neurodegenerative disorders in which dementia is a hallmark. These disorders include Nasu-Hakola disease, hereditary diffuse leukoencephaly with spheroids, Alzheimer’s disease, frontotemporal dementia, and Parkinson’s disease. Focusing on microglia, here we discuss the potential detrimental effects and risks presented by microglia-specific genetic variants, the environmental factors that target microglia, and microglial aging that likely lead to progressive memory loss in neurodegenerative diseases. Finally, we consider some caveats of the animal model systems that to date have advanced our understanding of microglial regulation of learning and memory.
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