Phagocytic clearance of apoptotic neurons by microglia/brain macrophages in vitro: Involvement of lectin-, integrin-, and phosphatidylserine-mediated recognition


  • A. Witting
  • P. Mueller
  • A. Herrmann
  • H. Kettenmann
  • C. Nolte


  • Journal of Neurochemistry


  • J Neurochem 75 (3): 1060-1070


  • Microglia, the tissue macrophages of the brain, play a crucial role in recognition and phagocytic removal of apoptotic neurons. The microglial receptors for recognition of apoptotic neurons are not yet characterized. Here we established a co-culture model of primary microglia and cerebellar granule neurons to examine the receptor systems involved in recognition/uptake of apoptotic neurons. Treatment with 100 {mu}M S-nitrosocysteine induced apoptosis of cerebellar neurons as indicated by nuclear condensation and phosphatidylserine exposure to the exoplasmic leaflet of the plasma membrane. Microglial cells were added to neurons 2 h after apoptosis induction and co-cultured for 6 h in the presence of ligands that inhibit recognition by binding to respective receptors. Binding/phagocytosis was determined after combined 4',6-diamidino-2-phenylindole/propidium iodide (for apoptotic/necrotic neurons) and lectin staining (for microglia). Uptake of apoptotic neurons was reduced by N-acetylglucosamine or galactose, suggesting that recognition involves asialoglycoprotein-like lectins. Furthermore, the inhibition of microglial binding/uptake of apoptotic neurons by RGDS peptide suggests a role of microglial vitronectin receptor. As microglia selectively bind lipid vesicles enriched in phosphatidylserine and O-phospho-L-serine interfered with the uptake of apoptotic neurons, an involvement of phosphatidylserine receptor is rather likely. Apoptotic neurons do not release soluble signals that serve to attract or activate microglia. Collectively, these results suggest that apoptotic neurons generate a complex surface signal recognized by different receptor systems on microglia.