Microglia are the source of the resident macrophages of the brain and thus belong to one of the most reactive cell types in cerebral tissue. They are attributed to have an important role in a number of pathological conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, viral infections like AIDS, and in lethal or sublethal injuries of neurons where the blood-brain barrier is left intact (Streit et al., 1988; McGeer et al., 1988., Gendelman et al.,1989). Microglia share a number of macrophage characteristics but so far lack a distinguishing positive marker. In this study it is shown that microglia are distinguished from other macrophages by a unique pattern of ion channels.
We compared membrane currents of microglial cells with those from peritoneal macrophages cultured under identical conditions. Although in macrophages a delayed outward K+ current was previously described (Randriamampita and Trautmann,1987), microglial cells lacked any specific outward current. Instead, these cells were characterized by large inwardly rectifying currents, activated by hyperpolarizing voltage steps. The reversal potential in different K+ gradients and the sensitivity of the current to Ba2+, TEA, and 4-AP indicates that this current is K+ selective. In single-channel recordings, a 30 pS K+ selective channel similar to the classical inward rectifier K+ channel was observed. Thus, the expression of membrane channels served not only to distinguish microglia from other cells inside and outside the brain, e.g., blood macrophages, but also suggests a unique functional state of this cell population.