• microglia;
  • degeneration;
  • senescence;
  • iron;
  • aging


Degeneration of microglial cells may be important for understanding the pathogenesis of aging-related neurodegeneration and neurodegenerative diseases. In this study, we analyzed the morphological characteristics of microglial cells in the nondemented and Alzheimer's disease (AD) human brain using ferritin immunohistochemistry. The central hypothesis was that expression of the iron storage protein ferritin increases the susceptibility of microglia to degeneration, particularly in the aged brain since senescent microglia might become less efficient in maintaining iron homeostasis and free iron can promote oxidative damage. In a primary set of 24 subjects (age range 34–97 years) examined, microglial cells immunoreactive for ferritin were found to constitute a subpopulation of the larger microglial pool labeled with an antibody for HLA-DR antigens. The majority of these ferritin-positive microglia exhibited aberrant morphological (dystrophic) changes in the aged and particularly in the AD brain. No spatial correlation was found between ferritin-positive dystrophic microglia and senile plaques in AD tissues. Analysis of a secondary set of human postmortem brain tissues with a wide range of postmortem intervals (PMI, average 10.94 ± 5.69 h) showed that the occurrence of microglial dystrophy was independent of PMI and consequently not a product of tissue autolysis. Collectively, these results suggest that microglial involvement in iron storage and metabolism contributes to their degeneration, possibly through increased exposure of the cells to oxidative stress. We conclude that ferritin immunohistochemistry may be a useful method for detecting degenerating microglia in the human brain. © 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.