Chronic inflammation in nervous system tissue is a common theme in age-related neurodegenerative diseases, including those that affect the retina. One source of this inflammation is the activities of microglia, a class of immune cell resident in the central nervous system. Microglia have a number of important roles to play in nervous system function beyond those of clearing debris and destroying errant cells. As immune function and tissue integrity become disarrayed with age, microglia grow overactive and inflammatory to the point of causing harm rather than helping to resolve issues. Due to the complexity of cellular metabolism, it is at present a challenge to draw a clear line of cause and consequence between the fundamental types of cell and tissue damage that cause aging and late stage consequences such as badly behaving microglia. As therapies to remove or repair portions of this damage emerge, the situation will become less confusing, however. This is a case in which the fastest way forward is to try approaches to the repair of old tissue and see what happens as a result to the system as a whole.
Microglia, the immunocompetent cells of the central nervous system (CNS), act as neuropathology sensors and are neuroprotective under physiological conditions. Microglia react to injury and degeneration with immune-phenotypic and morphological changes, proliferation, migration, and inflammatory cytokine production. An uncontrolled microglial response secondary to sustained CNS damage can put neuronal survival at risk due to excessive inflammation. A neuroinflammatory response is considered among the etiological factors of the major aged-related neurodegenerative diseases of the CNS, and microglial cells are key players in these neurodegenerative lesions.
The retina is an extension of the brain and therefore the inflammatory response in the brain can occur in the retina. The brain and retina are affected in several neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's disease (AD), Parkinson's disease (PD), and glaucoma. AD is an age-related neurodegeneration of the CNS characterized by neuronal and synaptic loss in the cerebral cortex, resulting in cognitive deficit and dementia. The extracellular deposits of beta-amyloid (Aβ) and intraneuronal accumulations of hyperphosphorylated tau protein (pTau) are the hallmarks of this disease. These deposits are also found in the retina and optic nerve. PD is a neurodegenerative locomotor disorder with the progressive loss of dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra. This is accompanied by Lewy body inclusion composed of α-synuclein (α-syn) aggregates. PD also involves retinal dopaminergic cell degeneration. Glaucoma is a multifactorial neurodegenerative disease of the optic nerve, characterized by retinal ganglion cell loss. In this pathology, deposition of Aβ, synuclein, and pTau has also been detected in retina.
These neurodegenerative diseases share a common pathogenic mechanism, neuroinflammation, in which microglia play an important role. Microglial activation has been reported in AD, PD, and glaucoma in relation to protein aggregates and degenerated neurons. The activated microglia can release pro-inflammatory cytokines which can aggravate and propagate neuroinflammation, thereby degenerating neurons and impairing brain as well as retinal function. The differential activation of microglial M1 or M2 phenotypes can produce a neurotoxic or neuroprotective environment, and could constitute a key in neuroinflammation regulation. In the search for a new strategy to control neuroinflammation, it might be more effective to change the M1 phenotype to the M2 phenotype than to block microglial activation completely. In the regulation of microglial activation, several cell types including, neurons, astrocytes, and T-cells are involved. When the neuroinflammatory process is triggered by protein aggregates (Aß, α-syn, pTau etc.), peripheral immune cells infiltrate CNS and prompt more activation on resident microglia, favoring neuroinflammatory processes.