Researchers had previously believed that the cells help to protect the brain from neurodegeneration by digesting the amyloid plaques, but it now appears the immune system may play a role in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
However, exactly what this role is, and how microglia are transformed from their protective state in healthy brains into a harmful state as the disease progresses, remains unclear.
To better understand microglia and how they respond in this way, a team led by MIT Professor Li-Huei Tsai, director of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, used single-cell RNA sequencing to study individual microglia cells. The research, published in the journal Cell Reports, represents the first time individual microglia have been studied in this way, according to Tsai.
“Right now, microglia are really in the spotlight for a number of neuro-system diseases, including Alzheimer’s, and also schizophrenia,” Tsai says. “However, there are still a lot of very basic things that we don’t know about microglia, such as whether cells in the healthy and diseased brain are all the same, or whether there are different groups, and how they become more inflammatory in the diseased state.”