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Plasticity of primary microglia on micropatterned geometries and spontaneous long-distance migration in microfluidic channels

Susanna Amadio1, Adele De Ninno23, Cinzia Montilli1, Luca Businaro2, Annamaria Gerardino2 and Cinzia Volonté1*

Author Affiliations

1 Santa Lucia Foundation/CNR-Cellular Biology and Neurobiology Institute, Via del Fosso di Fiorano 65, 00143 Rome, Italy

2 Department of Anatomy, Histology, Forensic Medicine and Orthopedics, University La Sapienza, Rome, Italy

3 CNR-Institute for Photonics and Nanotechnology, Via Cineto Romano 42, 00156 Rome, Italy

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BMC Neuroscience 2013, 14:121  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-14-121

Published: 13 October 2013



Microglia possess an elevated grade of plasticity, undergoing several structural changes based on their location and state of activation. The first step towards the comprehension of microglia’s biology and functional responses to an extremely mutable extracellular milieu, consists in discriminating the morphological features acquired by cells maintained in vitro under diverse environmental conditions. Previous work described neither primary microglia grown on artificially patterned environments which impose physical cues and constraints, nor long distance migration of microglia in vitro. To this aim, the present work exploits artificial bio-mimetic microstructured substrates with pillar-shaped or line-grating geometries fabricated on poly(dimethylsiloxane) by soft lithography, in addition to microfluidic devices, and highlights some morphological/functional characteristics of microglia which were underestimated or unknown so far.


We report that primary microglia selectively adapt to diverse microstructured substrates modifying accordingly their morphological features and behavior. On micropatterned pillar-shaped geometries, microglia appear multipolar, extend several protrusions in all directions and form distinct pseudopodia. On both micropatterned line-grating geometries and microfluidic channels, microglia extend the cytoplasm from a roundish to a stretched, flattened morphology and assume a filopodia-bearing bipolar structure. Finally, we show that in the absence of any applied chemical gradient, primary microglia spontaneously moves through microfluidic channels for a distance of up to 500 μm in approximately 12 hours, with an average speed of 0.66 μm/min.


We demonstrate an elevated grade of microglia plasticity in response to a mutable extracellular environment, thus making these cells an appealing population to be further exploited for lab on chip technologies. The development of microglia-based microstructured substrates opens the road to novel hybrid platforms for testing drugs for neuroinflammatory diseases.

Confocal analysis; Long distance migration; Microglia plasticity; Microfabrication; Time-lapse microscopy