Remodeling of brain circuits, including the formation, modification and elimination of synaptic structures, occurs throughout life as animals adapt to their environment. Until very recently, known mechanisms for experience-dependent synaptic plasticity had placed neurons and their structural interactions with astrocytes in the spotlight. However microglia, the immune cells of the brain, are very active even in the absence of pathological insults and their processes periodically contact dendritic spines and axon terminals in vivo.1–3 This intriguing behavior prompted us to explore, using electron microscopy and two-photon in vivo imaging in the primary visual cortex of juvenile mice, a possible role for quiescent microglia in the modification of synaptic structures.4 Our work uncovered subtle changes in the behavior of microglia during manipulations of visual experience including regulation of perisynaptic extracellular spaces, contact with subsets of structurally dynamic and transient dendritic spines, and phagocytic engulfment of intact synapses. Based on these results, here we further discuss three means of synapse modification or elimination that could be mediated by microglia in the context of normal experience-dependent plasticity.
Key words: microglia, synaptic plasticity, dendritic spine, visual cortex, critical period, development, mouse, electron microscopy, three-dimensional reconstruction, two-photon in vivo imaging