Immune cells rewire and repair the brain while we sleep

Summary: Microglia play a critical role in reorganizing neural connections, fighting infections, and repairing damage to neurons while we sleep.

Source: University of Rochester Medical Center

Science tells us that a lot of good things happen in our brains while we sleep – learning and memories are consolidated and waste is removed, among other things. New research shows for the first time that important immune cells called microglia – which play an important role in reorganizing the connections between nerve cells, fighting infections, and repairing damage – are also primarily active while we sleep.

The findings, which were conducted in mice and appear in the journal Nature Neuroscience, have implications for brain plasticity, diseases like autism spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, and dementia, which arise when the brain’s networks are not maintained properly, and the ability of the brain to fight off infection and repair the damage following a stroke or other traumatic injury.

“It has largely been assumed that the dynamic movement of microglial processes is not sensitive to the behavioral state of the animal,” said Ania Majewska, Ph.D., a professor in the University of Rochester Medical Center’s (URMC) Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience and lead author of the study.

“This research shows that the signals in our brain that modulate the sleep and awake state also act as a switch that turns the immune system off and on.”

Microglia serve as the brain’s first responders, patrolling the brain and spinal cord and springing into action to stamp out infections or gobble up debris from dead cell tissue. It is only recently that Majewska and others have shown that these cells also play an important role in plasticity, the ongoing process by which the complex networks and connections between neurons are wired and rewired during development and to support learning, memory, cognition, and motor function.

In previous studies, Majewska’s lab has shown how microglia interact with synapses, the juncture where the axons of one neuron connects and communicates with its neighbors. The microglia help maintain the health and function of the synapses and prune connections between nerve cells when they are no longer necessary for brain function.

The current study points to the role of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that signals arousal and stress in the central nervous system. This chemical is present in low levels in the brain while we sleep, but when production ramps up it arouses our nerve cells, causing us to wake up and become alert. The study showed that norepinephrine also acts on a specific receptor, the beta2 adrenergic receptor, which is expressed at high levels in microglia. When this chemical is present in the brain, the microglia slip into a sort of hibernation.

The study, which employed an advanced imaging technology that allows researchers to observe activity in the living brain, showed that when mice were exposed to high levels of norepinephrine, the microglia became inactive and were unable to respond to local injuries and pulled back from their role in rewiring brain networks.

This shows a woman sleeping
The current study points to the role of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that signals arousal and stress in the central nervous system. The image is in the public domain.

“This work suggests that the enhanced remodeling of neural circuits and repair of lesions during sleep may be mediated in part by the ability of microglia to dynamically interact with the brain,” said Rianne Stowell, Ph.D. a postdoctoral associate at URMC and first author of the paper. “Altogether, this research also shows that microglia are exquisitely sensitive to signals that modulate brain function and that microglial dynamics and functions are modulated by the behavioral state of the animal.”

The research reinforces to the important relationship between sleep and brain health and could help explain the established relationship between sleep disturbances and the onset of neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Additional co-authors on the study include Ryan Dawes, Hanna Batchelor, Katheryn Lordy, Brandan Whitelaw, Mark Stoessel, Jean Bidlack, and Edward Brown with URMC, and Grayson Sipe and Mriganka Sur with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Funding: The research was supported with funding from the National Eye Institute, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the National Science Foundation, the Schmitt Program on Integrative Brain Research, the University of Rochester Bilski-Mayer Fellowship, and the URMC Summer Scholars Fellowship.

About this neuroscience research article

University of Rochester Medical Center
Media Contacts:
Mark Michaud – University of Rochester Medical Center
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access
“Noradrenergic signaling in the wakeful state inhibits microglial surveillance and synaptic plasticity in the mouse visual cortex”. Rianne D. Stowell, Grayson O. Sipe, Ryan P. Dawes, Hanna N. Batchelor, Katheryn A. Lordy, Brendan S. Whitelaw, Mark B. Stoessel, Jean M. Bidlack, Edward Brown, Mriganka Sur & Ania K. Majewska.
Nature Neuroscience doi:10.1038/s41593-019-0514-0.


Noradrenergic signaling in the wakeful state inhibits microglial surveillance and synaptic plasticity in the mouse visual cortex

Microglia are the brain’s resident innate immune cells and also have a role in synaptic plasticity. Microglial processes continuously survey the brain parenchyma, interact with synaptic elements and maintain tissue homeostasis. However, the mechanisms that control surveillance and its role in synaptic plasticity are poorly understood. Microglial dynamics in vivo have been primarily studied in anesthetized animals. Here we report that microglial surveillance and injury response are reduced in awake mice as compared to anesthetized mice, suggesting that arousal state modulates microglial function. Pharmacologic stimulation of β2-adrenergic receptors recapitulated these observations and disrupted experience-dependent plasticity, and these effects required the presence of β2-adrenergic receptors in microglia. These results indicate that microglial roles in surveillance and synaptic plasticity in the mouse brain are modulated by noradrenergic tone fluctuations between arousal states and emphasize the need to understand the effect of disruptions of adrenergic signaling in neurodevelopment and neuropathology.

Feel free to share this Neuroscience News.
Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.