What Are Microglial Cells and How Do They Impact Cognition?

According to recent research, microglial cells within our brains are unsung heroes of cognitive health. In this article, we’ll discuss what microglial cells are, their function, and how they impact our cognitive skills.

What are microglial cells?

Microglia are specialized immune cells residing in the central nervous system. They make up about 10% of our brain cells and are considered the brain’s primary immune defense system.

microglial cells

Previously, scientists thought that after microglial cells play a role in childhood brain development, there became passive cells, responding only to infection or injury in adult brains. However, emerging research has shown that their functions extend beyond immune response. They actually play a significant role in cognition for the duration of our lives.

How do they affect cognition?

Microglial cells play a pivotal role in maintaining brain health by monitoring the brain’s environment and promptly responding to any disturbances. When the brain is injured or infected, microglia become activated, releasing cytokines and capturing any harmful debris. Of course, this immune response is vital to our overall brain health, so microglia are indirectly crucial to our cognitive health.

However, they may play more direct role than previously thought. A subset of microglial cells known as ARG1+ play a role in cognitive functions. Researchers have used advanced imaging techniques to find that these cells are especially abundant during childhood brain development and contribute to the development of cognitive functions. They are less prevalent during adulthood, but still critical for learning and memory.

In recent research, scientists have found that animals with less microglial activity displayed cognitive deficits. Specifically, the cells are linked to activity in the hippocampus, which deals with learning and memory. Apparently, fewer microglia in the hippocampus may cause the cognitive deficits seen in Alzheimer’s disease. 

Researchers noted that female individuals are more likely to experience cognitive deficits due to a lack of microglial cells, which directly correlates with the demographics of people who have Alzheimer’s. Women are more likely than men to experience Alzheimer’s disease. 

Different research found that a lack of microglia affected spatial memory in mice, but did not affect social behavior. Trials with mice may not reflect the full range of intricate cognitive functions that humans have, so researchers will need to complete further studies to determine the connection between microglia and cognition. However, this information can provide new insights into neurodegenerative diseases and pave the way for new treatment possibilities.


Even if you aren’t a neuroscientist or a clinician working with cognition, learning about cognition and brain function is valuable. Microglia play an essential role in our brain development and function. Here at HappyNeuron, we’re excited to see how research progresses for these helpful yet mysterious cells.

Aly Castle

Aly is HappyNeuron Pro’s Content Specialist. She is passionate about mental health and well-being and loves utilizing her design background to share important cognitive information clearly and understandably.

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