To develop male behavior, rats need immune cells

Research reveals unexpected role for cells called microglia in shaping the brain

5:35pm, February 12, 2013

Immune cells that help heal injuries in the adult brain may have a second job early in life, a study in rats reveals. The brain crusaders unexpectedly moonlight as sculptors, shaping a region of the brain into a male-specific form.

The cells, called microglia, are mobile garbage disposals that travel around the brain and gobble up damaged cells and infectious agents. But the new study, published in the Feb. 13 Journal of Neuroscience, emphasizes that these cells have diverse functions, says neuroscientist Jean Harry of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, N.C., who was not involved in the work.

Earlier results hinted that parts of the immune system have a role in building sex differences into the brain, so Kathryn Lenz and her colleagues at the University of Maryland, Baltimore decided to test whether microglia are pulling double duty. 

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