Disease-fighting cells in the brain, known as microglia, can prune the billions of tiny connections (or synapses) between neurons, the brain cells that transmit information through electric and chemical signals. This new research demonstrates that microglia respond to neuronal activity to select synapses to prune, and shows how this pruning relies on an immune response pathway – the complement system – to eliminate synapses in the way that bacterial cells or other pathogenic debris are eliminated. The study was led by Beth Stevens, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurology at Boston Childrens Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
The brain is created with many more synapses than it retains into adulthood. As the brain develops, it goes through dynamic changes to refine its circuitry, trimming away the synaptic connections that do not have a lot of activity, and preserving the stronger, more active synapses. This period, known as synaptic pruning, is a key part of normal brain development.
Scientists do not have a clear understanding of how these synapses are selected, targeted and then pruned. However, precise elimination of unused synapses and strengthening those that are most needed is essential for normal brain function. Many childhood disorders, such as amblyopia (a loss of vision in one eye that can occur when the eyes are misaligned), various forms of mental retardation, epilepsy and autism are thought to be due to abnormal brain development.
Microglia originate in the bone marrow and transform into an activated state to defend the body against infections. Activated microglia are also found in other disease states, ranging from stroke to Alzheimers disease. It is not always clear, however, if these cells cause degeneration of brain cells, or if they are part of the brains recovery process. In more recent years, several research groups reported that activated microglia are also present in the normal brain. Additionally, during the most robust synaptic pruning periods there is an increased number of activated microglia present and clustered around synapses.