Macrophages are highly dynamic and widespread blood cells that play many important functions in vertebrates. They are the main phagocytes throughout the body, responsible for clearing away dying cells, damaged tissue, and pathogens, to maintain tissue integrity. Macrophages circulate in the bloodstream as monocytes or are stationed in strategic locations of the body as tissue macrophages where their phagocytic roles are critical, such as microglia in the brain, Kupffer cells in the liver, Langerhans cells in the skin, and osteoclasts in the bone.
Of particular interest are the normal roles and mechanisms of macrophages and microglia in the development and maintenance of the nervous system that remain far less understood than their functions in disease and injury. In the healthy brain, microglia have been implicated in shaping brain circuitry and neuronal development as well as in possibly affecting behavioral outcomes. They have unique embryonic origins from primitive macrophages that migrate into the brain and remain thereafter through life. These versatile glial cells provide the first line of defense and respond to a wide variety of environmental factors, such as protein aggregates, apoptotic cells, injured tissue, and pathogens, as well as to intracellular dysfunctions. Overall, the developmental process by which macrophages take residence and differentiate into tissue macrophages, and the contribution of macrophages to normal animal development remain not well understood. We are addressing these two fundamental areas of macrophage biology in the context of how macrophages participate in the nervous system.