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Primary Cultures of Rat Astrocytes and Microglia and Their Use in the Study of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis

Published: June 23, 2022 doi: 10.3791/63483


This protocol demonstrates how to prepare primary cultures of glial cells, astrocytes, and microglia from the cortices of Sprague Dawley rats and how to use these cells for the purpose of studying the pathophysiology of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in the rat hSOD1G93A model. First, the protocol shows how to isolate and culture astrocytes and microglia from postnatal rat cortices, and then how to characterize and test these cultures for purity by immunocytochemistry using the glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) marker of astrocytes and the ionized calcium-binding adaptor molecule 1 (Iba1) microglial marker. In the next stage, methods are described for dye-loading (calcium-sensitive Fluo 4-AM) of cultured cells and the recordings of Ca2+ changes in video imaging experiments on live cells.

The examples of video recordings consist of: (1) cases of Ca2+ imaging of cultured astrocytes acutely exposed to immunoglobulin G (IgG) isolated from ALS patients, showing a characteristic and specific response compared to the response to ATP as demonstrated in the same experiment. Examples also show a more pronounced transient rise in intracellular calcium concentration evoked by ALS IgG in hSOD1G93A astrocytes compared to non-transgenic controls; (2) Ca2+ imaging of cultured astrocytes during a depletion of calcium stores by thapsigargin (Thg), a non-competitive inhibitor of the endoplasmic reticulum Ca2+ ATPase, followed by store-operated calcium entry elicited by the addition of calcium in the recording solution, which demonstrates the difference between Ca2+ store operation in hSOD1G93A and in non-transgenic astrocytes; (3) Ca2+ imaging of the cultured microglia showing predominantly a lack of response to ALS IgG, whereas ATP application elicited a Ca2+ change. This paper also emphasizes possible caveats and cautions regarding critical cell density and purity of cultures, choosing the correct concentration of the Ca2+ dye and dye-loading techniques.


Cell culture techniques have given rise to numerous advancements in diverse fields of cellular neurophysiology in health and disease. Particularly, primary cell cultures, freshly isolated from the neuronal tissue of a lab animal, allow the experimenter to closely study the behavior of diverse cells in different biochemical media and physiological setups. Using different fluorescent physiological indicators such as the Ca2+-sensitive dyes in combination with time-lapse video microscopy provides better insight into the cellular biophysical and biochemical processes in real time.

ALS is a devastating neurodegenerative disease that affects upper and lower motor neurons1. The disease has a complex pathogenesis of the familial type but mostly of the sporadic form (90% of cases)2. It is well known that non-cell autonomous mechanisms contribute to ALS pathophysiology, primarily due to the essential role of glial cells3. ALS is also well characterized as a neuroinflammatory disease with involvement of humoral and cellular factors of inflammation.

Immunoglobulin G is widely used as a molecular marker in ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases. Studying the serum level of this marker can indicate the presence and stage of neuroinflammation in the disease4,5,6, while its presence in the cerebrospinal fluid can indicate a breach of the blood brain barrier7. IgGs were also identified as deposits in the spinal cord motor neurons of ALS patients7. Nevertheless, this approach has shown some inconsistencies in the correlation of the level of IgGs with the stage and characteristics of the disease6.

IgG isolated from the sera of ALS patients (ALS IgG) can induce a calcium response in naive astrocytes8 and glutamate release in neurons, pointing to an excitotoxic effect-a hallmark of ALS pathology9. However, studies on the hSOD1G93A ALS rat model (containing multiple copies of the human SOD1 mutation10) showed a number of markers of oxidative stress in cultured neuroglial cells11, tissues12,13,14, or live animals13. It is noteworthy that the astrocytes cultured from the ALS rat model were more prone to oxidative stress induced by peroxide than the astroglia from non-transgenic littermates11.

Microglial cells in culture are affected by ALS IgG in a less apparent way. Namely, a BV-2 microglial cell line displayed a rise in the signal from fluorescent markers of oxidative stress in response to the application of only 4/11 ALS IgG patient samples15. It is well known that microglia participate in many neuroinflammatory pathologies, adding to oxidative stress and late progression phase in the non-cell autonomous mechanism of ALS16,17. Nevertheless, the data with ALS IgGs indicated that these cells may not be as reactive as astrocytes to these humoral factors of ALS inflammation. Several studies have been conducted with primary astrocytes from ALS murine models, not only in pups but also in symptomatic animals, either on the brain or on the spinal cord18,19,20,21. This is also true for microglial primary cultures, although to a lesser extent than astrocytes and mostly from brain regions at the embryonic stage22,23,24.

We use time-lapse video imaging of Ca2+ on cells in culture primarily as a means to follow intracellular transients of this ion as a physiological marker of excitotoxicity. Thus, by biophysical characterization of these transients (amplitude, area under transient, rise-time, frequency) the researcher can obtain experimental diagnostic parameters from diverse cellular models of neurodegeneration. This technique thus offers an advantage of a quantitative physiological assessment of IgGs as disease biomarkers. There is a large body of literature on the role of IgGs and Ca2+ in the induction of ALS. Most of these studies were performed by inducing ALS by injecting patient IgGs into experimental animals25,26,27,28,29, which then showed intracellular Ca2+ elevation and IgG depositions. A line of studies explored the effect of ALS IgGs on the motor synapse in vitro30,31,32. In the above context, the technique presented here puts the focus on the glial cells as important players in the non-cell autonomous mechanism of ALS and quantifies their potential excitotoxic response to IgGs as humoral factors of neuroinflammation. This approach may have a wider application in testing other humoral factors such as whole sera, CSF, or cytokines in different cell culture systems and in cellular models of general inflammation.

This paper describes how to prepare primary cultures of glial cells, astrocytes, and microglia from the cortices of Sprague Dawley rats and how to further use these cells to study ALS pathophysiology with patient sera-derived IgG. Protocols are detailed for the dye-loading of cultured cells (Figure 1) and the recordings of Ca2+ changes in time-lapse video imaging experiments. Examples of video recordings will show how glial cells react to ALS IgG as compared to ATP, the latter activating purinergic membrane receptors. Shown for the first time is an example on how astrocytes isolated from the hSOD1G93A ALS rat brain react with a more pronounced Ca2+ response to ALS IgG compared to non-transgenic controls and how to relate this process to the differences in Ca2+ store operation. Also shown is an example of calcium imaging in microglial cells acutely challenged with ALS IgG, with only a modest response of intracellular calcium.

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All experiments were performed in accordance with the EU directives on the protection of animals for scientific purposes and with permission from the Ethical Commission of the Faculty of Biology, University of Belgrade (approval number EK-BF-2016/08). Regarding patient material (sera for IgGs), it was collected for routine clinical examination with informed patient's consent in accordance with The Code of Ethics of the World Medical Association (Declaration of Helsinki) for experiments involving humans. The protocol was approved by the Ethics committee of the Clinical Center of Serbia (No. 850/6).

1. Primary cell culture preparation

  1. Brain tissue isolation
    NOTE: Isolation should be performed on ice, using ice cold solutions.
    1. Use newborn pups 1-3 days old for primary neonatal cell culture33.
      NOTE: For the study presented here, Sprague Dawley hSOD1G93A and non-transgenic rats were used. For genotyping, rat tails were used for later DNA extraction and PCR.
    2. Sprinkle the pup's head with 70% ethanol and immediately decapitate it fast using scissors.
    3. Cut open the skin using small-angled scissors to expose the skull. Open the skull by making a cut from the foramen magnum toward the orbits. Next, make a perpendicular midline cut. Remove the brain from the skull and place it in a Petri dish containing phosphate-buffered saline (PBS).
      NOTE: Clean the tools between pups to prevent cross-contamination between transgenic and non-transgenic pups. Isolation of the cortices from the rest of the brain should be done under a stereomicroscope.
    4. Using the tip of the forceps, tear the connections between both hemispheres. Then, separate the hemispheres with curved forceps by gently pushing a hemisphere from the center to the side.
    5. Remove the meninges by carefully tearing them with straight and curved forceps.
    6. Remove the hippocampus by pinching it with a curved forceps. Discard the hippocampus or use it for another cell culture preparation.
      NOTE: Further steps should be performed under the laminar flow hood to ensure sterile conditions.
  2. Tissue homogenization and dissociation
    1. Transfer one cortex into a 15 mL tube filled with 3 mL of cold PBS. Pipet the suspension up and down with a 1 mL tip, completing 10-15 strokes until the suspension becomes homogeneous.
      NOTE: Be very cautious not to produce bubbles in this process.
    2. Centrifuge at 500 × g for 5 min. Remove the supernatant and resuspend the pellet in 3 mL of cold PBS by pipetting it up and down with a 1 mL tip. Repeat the centrifugation step.
      NOTE: All solutions used from this point should be prewarmed to 37 °C.
    3. Discard the supernatant and resuspend the pellet in 2 mL of complete Dulbecco's Modified Eagle Medium (DMEM) supplemented with 10% fetal bovine serum (FBS) and antibiotics (penicillin and streptomycin). Transfer the homogenate to a 2 mL tube.
    4. Pass the homogenate through 21 G and 23 G needles (three times each) to make a suspension of single cells.
      NOTE: Be very cautious not to produce bubbles in this process.
  3. Pour the cell suspension prepared from one cortex into a 60 mm diameter Petri dish or a T25 flask (with the surface pretreated with a polypeptide coating for the growth of adherent cells) containing 3 mL of complete DMEM. Lightly shake the Petri dish so that the suspension is uniformly distributed.
  4. Grow the cells in the incubator in a humidified atmosphere of 5% CO2/95% air at 37 °C.
  5. Change the medium 48 h after isolation and replace the medium every 3 days.
  6. To promote astrocyte growth, when cells reach 70%-80% confluency, wash them with prewarmed PBS to remove the loosely attached glial cells and traces of FBS in the medium.
    1. Trypsinize the underlying layer of astrocytes by adding 1 mL of prewarmed trypsin solution (0.25% trypsin, 0.02% EDTA in PBS, sterile-filtered).
    2. Place the dish in the incubator at 37 °C for 2-5 min.
    3. Check the cells under the microscope. When they start to detach, add 4 mL of complete DMEM.
    4. Collect the cell suspension and transfer it to a 15 mL tube. Centrifuge at 500 × g for 5 min.
    5. Discard the supernatant and resuspend the pellet in 1 mL of complete medium. Count the cells using a hemocytometer.
    6. Replate the cells at a density of 104 cells/cm2 in 5 mL of fresh complete DMEM.
  7. Change the medium every 3 days. To minimize the presence of other glial cell types, after astrocytes reach 50% confluence and prior to each media replacement, wash the cells with complete DMEM.
    1. Aspirate the supernatant medium with a 1 mL pipette and gently dispense it onto the layer of cells several times. Ensure that the whole surface of the cell layer is covered during this washing step.
  8. Once the cells reach 80% confluence (usually after 14 days), repeat the trypsinization and the collection of astrocytes as described in step 1.6.
  9. Seed 5 × 103 of astrocytes on a 7 mm circular glass coverslip coated with poly-L-lysine (50 µg/mL). Use them in experiments after 48 h.
  10. To promote microglia, after step 1.7, allow the glial cells to reach a confluent layer34. When microglial cells appear on top of the astrocyte layer (after 10-15 days, recognized by their smaller, more oval bodies and shorter processes), shake the Petri dish on an orbital shaker for 2 h at 220 rpm.
  11. Dispersing and seeding microglial cells
    1. Lightly wash the detached and loosely attached cells by aspirating the supernatant medium with a 1 mL pipette tip and gently dispense it onto the layer of cells several times. Be sure to cover the whole surface of the cell layer during this washing step, collect the medium with the detached cells, and transfer it to a 15 mL tube.
    2. Centrifuge at 500 × g for 5 min. Discard the supernatant and resuspend the pellet in 1 mL of medium.
    3. Pass the cell suspension through a 21 G needle to obtain a single-cell suspension.
      NOTE: Most published methods use trypsin or papain to dissociate the tissue; however, 21 G needles have the advantage of preventing the overdigestion of cells, allowing for a gentler dissociation.
    4. Count the cells using a hemocytometer. Seed 5 × 103 microglial cells on a 7 mm circular glass coverslip coated with poly-L-lysine (50 µg/mL). Use them in experiments after 48 h.
      ​NOTE: It is difficult to obtain a pure microglial culture by shaking, since the oligodendrocyte precursor cells and astrocytes may still be present in a variable number depending on the experimenter's experience. The immunocytochemical protocol used to estimate the presence of different cell populations in glial cultures has been described elsewhere35.

2. Immunocytochemistry

  1. Rinse the cells plated on coverslips in PBS, 2 x 1 min.
  2. Fix the cells in 4% paraformaldehyde for 20 min at room temperature (RT).
  3. Wash in PBS 3 x 5 min.
  4. Incubate in a blocking solution containing 10% normal donkey serum (NDS)/1% bovine serum albumin (BSA)/0.1% Triton X-100 for 45 min at RT.
    1. Add 50 µL of a blocking solution per 10 mm diameter coverslip.
  5. Prepare primary antibodies in 1% NDS/1% BSA/0.1% TritonX-100 in the following dilutions: mouse anti-GFAP 1:300, goat anti-Iba1 1:500. Incubate the cells with primary antibodies overnight at +4 °C.
  6. Rinse in PBS, 3 x 10 min.
  7. Incubate with the secondary antibodies conjugated with a fluorophore: donkey anti-mouse (excitation 488 nm [1:200)) or donkey anti-goat (excited at 647 nm [1:200)). Incubate the cells for 2 h at RT in the dark.
  8. Wash in PBS, 7 x 5 min.
  9. Incubate the cells with 4',6-diamidino-2-phenylindole (DAPI, 1:4,000) for 10 min at RT.
  10. Wash in PBS 5 x 5 min.
  11. Mount the coverslips on microscope slides using a mounting solution; use one drop of it per coverslip.
    NOTE: Antibody dilutions may vary depending on the producer. Users must determine optimal dilutions for their experiments.

3. Time-lapse video imaging

NOTE: Solutions containing the fluorescent dye should be protected from direct light. Before starting the imaging experiment, make sure that the glass coverslip does not move when turning on the perfusion.

  1. Preparation of solutions and cells
    1. Prepare extracellular solution (ECS) for imaging: 140 mM NaCl, 5 mM KCl, 2 mM CaCal2, 2 mM MgCl2, 10 mM D-glucose, and 10 mM HEPES. Adjust the pH to 7.4. Ensure that the osmolarity is 280-300 mOsm/kg and prepare ECS without Ca2+: 140 mM NaCl, 5 mM KCl, 2 mM MgCl2, 10 mM D-glucose, 10 mM HEPES, and 0.1 mM EGTA.
    2. Prepare the test solutions: 100 µM ATP dissolved in ECS, 1 µM Thg in ECS without Ca2+, and 0.1 mg/mL ALS IgG in ECS8.
    3. Transfer one coverslip to a dish with ECS to wash out the complete DMEM. Prepare the dye loading solution by diluting 1 mM stock solution of Fluo-4 AM with ECS to the final concentration of 5 µM Fluo-4 AM.
      1. Place the coverslip with cells in the dye loading solution for 30 min at RT in the dark. Wash the cells in ECS for 20 min.
    4. If cells are not adequately loaded (i.e., if the basal level of fluorescence is too low-<5% of the dynamic range of the camera with exposure time greater than 400 ms), increase the loading time to up to 45 min to 1 h at 37 °C. Alternatively, mix the Fluo-4 AM stock solution with an equal volume of 20% (w/v) detergent (Pluronic) in DMSO before diluting in ECS, making the final Pluronic concentration ~0.02%.
      NOTE: The experimental examples of this study were performed with human IgG isolated from ALS patients' blood sera as described previously4,5,11. Each experiment was performed with IgG samples of a single patient.
  2. Video imaging
    NOTE: In this protocol, the Video Imaging System was combined with a xenon short arc lamp, a polychromator system, and an inverted epifluorescence microscope equipped with water, glycerin, and oil immersion objective. Timelapse imaging was performed using a Digital Camera System.
    1. Switch on the components of the imaging setup 15 min before the experiment to allow the system to reach the working temperature.
    2. Place the coverslip in the recording chamber with 1 mL of working solution (ECS or ECS without Ca2+).
    3. To choose the correct imaging protocol, open the imaging software and in the Acquisition panel, choose the filter pairs for Fluo4-AM with an excitation wavelength at 480 nm, a dichroic mirror at 505 nm, and an emission wavelength at 535 nm.
    4. Choose the field of view taking care to have a consistent number of cells throughout the experiment. Adjust the exposure time and detector gain appropriately, in such a manner that the signal is not saturated. Choose the pseudocolor mode for acquisition. For more detailed instructions, refer to the manual provided by the manufacturer.
    5. Adjust the sampling rate to 1 Hz (1 frame per second).
    6. Start the imaging by acquiring the basal level of fluorescence for 3-5 min for the baseline determination (F0). Ensure a constant flow of the working solution.
    7. Stop the flow of the working solution and switch to the test solution for the desired length of time (also see time bars in examples of Figure 2 and Figure 3). Between each test solution, wash the cells with a constant flow of the working solution for 3-5 min.
    8. Keep the solution volume in the recording chamber at ~1 mL by arranging a constant suction from the top of the solution (see Figure 2E).
      ​NOTE: To apply the treatment directly to the imaged cells, a customized delivery system made of a glass pipette (0.8 mm inner diameter) was positioned ~350 µm away and ~1 mm above the cells, at an angle of 45° combined with the solution exchange system containing pinch valves and an electronic valve controller (see Figure 2E).

4. Data analysis

  1. Define a region of interest (ROI) that corresponds to the individual cell.
    1. Choose the frame with the highest signal intensity (i.e., from the application of ATP) and encircle one cell by using the application Polygonal Tool. Repeat for all the cells in the acquired field. Choose five ROIs in the background using the Circle Tool.
    2. To measure the mean signal intensity of a single cell and the background for each time frame, select all ROIs and use the Multi Measure command in ROI Manager in ImageJ or any equivalent command in commercial software (see the Table of Materials).
  2. Export the mean signal intensity values of the ROIs as a spreadsheet.
  3. Average five background ROIs and subtract the averaged background of each frame from the mean ROI intensity of the frame acquired at the same time.
  4. To normalize the obtained data to the baseline signal, use equation (1):
    ΔF/F0 = (F - F0)/F0   (1)
    where F is the signal intensity of each time frame after background subtraction, and F0 is the baseline Fluo-4 fluorescence.
    NOTE: A custom-made code was used in this study.
  5. To analyze calcium activity, determine several parameters4: the amplitude of the calcium peak (ΔF/F0), the integrated change (time integral, surface under the response recording) of the calcium transient (ΔF/F0 × s), time-to-peak-elapsed time from the onset of stimulation to the maximum of calcium transient (s), rise time-time elapsed from the onset of the stimulation to the value of ΔF/F0 that reaches 50%-80% of the maximal amplitude (s), half-width-full width of a transient at half-maximal amplitude (s), frequency of responses if they are repetitive (Hz).

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Representative Results

Characterization of different glial cell types in culture
It usually takes 15-21 days to produce astrocytes for experiments, while microglial cells take 10-15 days to grow. Immunostaining was performed to assess the cell purity of the culture. Figure 1 shows the expression of double labeling of the astrocytic marker GFAP and the microglial marker Iba1 in respective cultures.

Calcium imaging is known to reveal the differences in cell physiology of healthy and diseased astrocytes. Previously in wild type astrocytes, we demonstrated that ALS IgG affects cellular Ca2+ by mobilizing intra- and extracellular pools into the cytosol8. The following protocol determined whether there were differences between the calcium transients in hSOD1G93A and non-transgenic cultured astrocytes acutely exposed to ALS IgG samples from patients. Astrocytes loaded with Fluo4-AM were perfused with ECS for 3 min to obtain a stable baseline. Next, 100 µg/mL ALS IgG was applied in the bath for 5 min. Astrocytes were washed with ECS, and then 100 µM ATP was applied at the end of each recording to test the health of each cell and observe the calcium response to a standard stimulus.

Representative traces in Figure 2A,B show that hSOD1G93A astrocytes respond to ALS IgG with a greater amplitude of the calcium transient, a larger overall integrated change, and a shorter time-to-peak than non-transgenic astrocytes. Here, however, one should exercise caution in interpreting quantitative data when single-wavelength Ca2+-probes such as Fluo4-AM are used (see the discussion section). Additionally, the form of the response to ALS IgG is distinguishable from the response to ATP (note a faster transient with a greater amplitude in the traces and cell synchronicity in pseudocolor images in response to ATP, Figure 2A,B).

With the goal to further study the origin of the differences in the calcium response to ALS IgG and ATP between hSOD1G93A and non-transgenic astrocytes, we used a pharmacological approach to manipulate internal Ca2+ stores during calcium imaging by using 1 µM Thg. Thg is a non-selective inhibitor of the endoplasmic reticulum Ca2+ ATPase (SERCA), depleting the intracellular Ca2+ stores almost immediately, which is reflected in a calcium transient lasting over several minutes. To exclude the effect of external Ca2+ in the observed phenomena, ECS deprived of Ca2+ was used during the experiment. After recording the basal level of the fluorescence for 3 min, 1 µM Thg was applied in the bath for 2 min. Following Thg-induced calcium depletion, the astrocytes were perfused with ECS containing Ca2+ to induce and monitor the refilling of the stores. Representative traces of the described experiment are shown in Figure 2C,D. As expected, hSOD1G93A astrocytes had a higher level of Ca2+ in the stores, as revealed by store depletion, indicating an overload of this ion. A similar mechanism has been demonstrated in cultured astrocytes from SOD1G93A transgenic mice36.

Calcium imaging of microglial cells in culture
Timelapse imaging of microglia labeled with Fluo-4 AM was performed in the same way as described for astrocytes (Figure 3B). Microglial cells were perfused with ECS with 2 mM Ca2+ for 3 min to obtain a stable baseline, followed by bath application of 100 µg/mL ALS IgG for 5 min, washing with ECS, and stimulation with 100 µM ATP. Interestingly, while astrocytes readily respond to ALS IgG, a vast majority of microglial cells did not respond to ALS IgG (as illustrated by only one microglial cell reacting with a calcium transient; red trace in the example of Figure 3A). However, they always responded to ATP and in a similar manner as astrocytes (Figure 3A). Note also a case of a spontaneous Ca2+ transient in the cell trace 2 (Figure 3A) that should not be mistaken for an induced response.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Astrocytes and microglia in a primary culture. Representative confocal images of astrocytes (left) in culture labeled using GFAP (red) and microglia (right) in a culture stained with Iba1 (green). Double labeling (GFAP/Iba1) was used to indicate culture purity. DAPI was used to label nuclei (blue). Scale bars = 50 µm. Abbreviations: GFAP = glial fibrillary acidic protein; lba1 = ionized calcium-binding adaptor molecule 1; DAPI = 4',6-diamidino-2-phenylindole. Please click here to view a larger version of this figure.

Figure 2
Figure 2: An example of calcium imaging application in a study of astrocyte pathophysiology. (A) A representative example of a calcium imaging experiment where hSOD1G93A astrocytes were imaged for 5 min to collect baseline fluorescence ('baseline'), followed by an acute application of ALS IgG (0.1 mg/mL) for 5 min ('response to ALS IgG'), and a treatment with 100 µM ATP ('response to ATP'). The top panel shows pseudocolor images (intensity of fluorescence is color-coded, where black corresponds to very low intensity, while white marks pixels with highest intensity; color-intensity relation is represented in a color bar on the right in the top panel of B that corresponds to the fluorescence intensity of an individual cell in each of the segments of the experiment ('baseline', 'response to ALS IgG', and 'response to ATP'). The gray dashed lines point to the pseudocolor images of specific time points for the representative calcium trace (in orange). The gray box in the middle of the calcium trace marks the 5 min application of ALS IgG. Black bar under the calcium trace marks the application of ATP. (B) Same as in (A) except for non-transgenic astrocytes (trace in blue). (C) A representative calcium trace (orange) in hSOD1G93A astrocyte challenged with 1 µg/mL thapsigargin (black bar under the trace) in ECS without calcium, followed by the addition of 2 mM Ca2+ ('2 mM Ca2+', black bar under the trace). (D) Same as in (C) except for the non-transgenic astrocyte (trace is in blue). Amplitude scale = 100% ΔF/F0. Time scale = 200 s. Scale bars = 50 µm. (E) Scheme of the experimental setup depicting the custom-made mode of solution exchange and the placement of the pipette for biochemical agent application. Abbreviations: ALS = amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; IgG = immunoglobulin G; Thg = thapsigargin. Please click here to view a larger version of this figure.

Figure 3
Figure 3: An example of calcium imaging of cultured microglia. (A) Left: Brightfield image of cultured microglia. Since it is difficult to obtain a pure microglial culture, astrocytes are also present here (bigger flat polygonal cells, see example indicated by arrowhead). Both ramified (small soma, prominent processes) and amoeboid microglia (indicated with green and yellow boxes, respectively) are present in the culture. Middle: Enlarged yellow and cyan boxes from the left. Red, blue, and violet lines mark the ROIs from which the mean fluorescence intensity over time is extracted. Right: Calcium traces of three cells in the middle panel. The color of the trace corresponds to the color of the ROIs in the middle panel. After imaging the baseline calcium fluorescence ('baseline fluorescence') for 200 s, cells were exposed to an acute application of ALS IgG (0.1 mg/mL) for 5 min ('response to ALS IgG'), followed by 100 µM ATP ('response to ATP'). The gray box in the middle of the calcium trace marks the 5 min application of ALS IgG. The black bar under the calcium trace marks the application of ATP. Note that only cell 1 (red trace) representing a large minority of cells, responded to ALS IgG, while all cells responded to ATP. (B) Pseudocolor images represent the fluorescence intensity in each of the segments of the recordings ('baseline', 'response to ALS IgG', and 'response to ATP') where orange dashed lines point to the specific time points in the representative calcium traces (A, right panel). Green and orange boxes mark amoeboid microglia (same as in A). Color-intensity relation is represented in a color bar on the right. Amplitude scale = 100% ΔF/F0. Time scale = 100 s. Scale bars = 50 µm. Abbreviations: ALS = amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; IgG = immunoglobulin G; ROI = region of interest. Please click here to view a larger version of this figure.

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This paper presents the method of primary cell culturing as a fast and "on the budget" tool for studying different aspects of cell (patho)physiology such as ALS in the rat hSOD1G93A model. The technique is thus suitable for studies at the single-cell level that can be extrapolated and further investigated at a higher level of organization (i.e., in tissue slices or in a live animal). Cell culturing as a technique, however, has a few caveats. It is most critical to do the brain tissue isolation and the dissociation of cells on ice and to perform these and subsequent stages of isolation and preparation in the shortest possible time. Contamination is an ever-present hurdle that can be overcome by using well-sterilized equipment and taking particular care in performing tissue dissociation in the laminar hood37. It is also critical to seed the correct density of cells. If the number of cells seeded is less than the desired number, this will not support the cell growth and propagation in the dish. However, if cells are too dense, there will be competition among them for the nutrients in the growth medium, and, thus, more cell death. This is why it is advisable to count the dissociated cells before seeding, at least before some experience is gained regarding the correct relation of the starting tissue and the dissociation volume.

GFAP is a widely used astrocyte marker and is often used to assess cell culture purity38,39. However, only GFAP is not sufficient when studying astrocyte reactivity. It is advised to combine it with a proliferation marker such as Ki67 or other astrocyte markers (glutamine synthetase, aldolase-C, or aldehyde dehydrogenase-1)18,38. Although these techniques tend to yield pure glial cell-type cultures, care needs to be taken in assessing culture cell purity. This is of particular importance for microglial cell cultures that usually contain some oligodendrocyte precursors or astrocytes34. Specific markers for microglial cells attract a lot of interest. The most used marker is Iba1, but other often-used markers, such as differentiation receptors (CD68, CD45) and fractalkine receptor (CX3CR1), can be detected in other cells too (for more detail, see40). Currently, the most specific markers for microglia are TMEM119 and the purinergic receptor P2Y1241, although a recent paper has raised concern regarding TMEM119 specificity42.

Introduction of timelapse live-cell imaging offers the advantage of monitoring cellular processes, such as Ca2+ signaling, in real time. In addition, the modulation of cell behavior by applying different chemical agents (e.g., Thg here) gives further information for the description of the pathways and signal messengers activated in a healthy cell or a cellular disease model (isolated and cultivated here from the hSOD1G93A ALS rat). When working with cell membrane-permeable fluorescent dyes such as Fluo-4 AM, it is critical to find the correct concentration and incubation time for the dye to fill the interior of the cell. If it takes too long, the dye uptake can be augmented by keeping the cells in an incubator at 37 °C. In more severe cases, a mild detergent (e.g., Pluronic F-127) may be used in the loading solution. It is also not advised to achieve the above by raising the concentration of the dye over 10 µM. In fact, at higher concentrations, the dye may act as a Ca2+ buffer and dampen the Ca2+ signal amplitude.

It is also worth mentioning that in addition to Fluo-4 and similar single-wavelength dyes, there exist Ca2+ -sensitive ratiometric dyes (e.g., Fura-2) that emit at one measuring and at one Ca2+ -insensitive reference wavelength. Such measurements are thus insensitive to the bias caused by uneven dye distribution in the cell and to changes in the optical path. Nevertheless, using single-wavelength dyes, especially with high-affinity indicators such as Fluo-4, is advisable in cases where relative measurements are made within the same sample, or where one follows primarily the dynamics of the process and not real Ca2+ concentration changes43. Nevertheless, these measurements cannot be used for quantitative data in terms of Ca2+ concentration, and caution is necessary when interpreting amplitudes from the data as presented in Figure 2.

We have demonstrated here how using this imaging facility on living cells-astrocytes in culture-may reveal subtle intracellular mechanisms of pathophysiology such as the replenishment of Ca2+ stores and store-operated Ca2+ entry, that are disturbed in the ALS model, in accordance with previous results on murine cells36. This could then explain a higher sensitivity of hSOD1G93A astrocytes to ALS IgG as suggested here, that may potentiate the progression of the pathology. To compare measurements in such experiments, it is advisable to have a similar cell density in the field of view and that the same cell compartments are taken for ROIs (e.g., soma vs processes).

An example was shown here that microglial cells did not respond to ALS IgG with the same vigor as astrocytes. This is in line with the finding of the scarce generation of peroxide in the microglial cell line upon ALS IgG treatment15. Altogether, this approach points to a cell-specific response to IgG related to ALS, also an important fact realized through the use of pure cell cultures of microglia versus astroglia. Using the glial cells from the models of neuropathophysiology or derived from patients' inducible pluripotent stem cells has the future of physiological biomarking in severe neural diseases such as ALS. It would thus be essential to understand fine Ca2+ signaling as the fingerprint of the particular state of the disease or to distinguish among different excitotoxic diseases. For these purposes, a machine learning procedure needs to be developed and data recordings categorized. In addition, these cells can be grown in culture and seeded in a microfluidic device to be used for diagnosis or for patient stratification of neurodegenerative disease by means of evoking a response to diverse humoral factors of neuroinflammation (e.g., sera, IgG, CSF).

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The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.


This work was supported by the Ministry of Education Science and Technological Development Republic of Serbia Contract No. 451-03-9/2021-14/ 200178, the FENS - NENS Education and Training Cluster project "Trilateral Course on Glia in Neuroinflammation", and the EC H2020 MSCA RISE grant #778405. We thank Marija Adžić and Mina Perić for supplying the immunohistochemistry images and Danijela Bataveljić for help with paper writing.


Name Company Catalog Number Comments
15 mL tube Sarstedt, Germany 62 554 502
2 mL tube Sarstedt, Germany 72.691
21 G needle Nipro, Japan HN-2138-ET
23 G needle Nipro, Japan HN-2338-ET
5 mL syringe Nipro, Japan SY3-5SC-EC
6 mm circular glass coverslip Menzel Glasser, Germany 630-2113
60 mm Petri dish ThermoFisher Sientific, USA 130181
ATP Sigma-Aldrich, Germany A9062
AxioObserver A1 Carl Zeiss, Germany
Bovine serum albumine Sigma-Aldrich, Germany B6917
Calcium chloride Sigma-Aldrich, Germany 2110
Centrifuge Eppendorf, Germany
DAPI Sigma-Aldrich, Germany 10236276001
D-glucose Sigma-Aldrich, Germany 158968
DMEM Sigma-Aldrich, Germany D5648
Donkey-anti goat AlexaFluor 647 IgG antibody Invitrogen, USA A-21447
Donkey-anti mouse AlexaFluor 488 IgG antibody Invitrogen, USA A-21202
EDTA Sigma-Aldrich, Germany EDS-100G
EGTA Sigma-Aldrich, Germany E4378
”evolve”-EM 512 Digital Camera System Photometrics, USA
Fetal bovine serum (FBS) Gibco, ThermoFisher Scientific, USA 10500064
Fiji ImageJ Software Open source under the GNU General Public Licence
FITC filter set Chroma Technology Inc., USA
Fluo-4 AM Molecular Probes, USA F14201
Goat anti-Iba1 Fujifilm Wako Chemicals, USA 011-27991
HEPES Biowest, France P5455
HighSpeed Solution Exchange System ALA Scientific Instruments, USA
Incubator Memmert GmbH + Co. KG, Germany
Magnesium chloride Sigma-Aldrich, Germany M2393
Matlab software Math Works, USA
Mouse anti-GFAP Merck Millipore, USA MAB360
Mowiol 40-88 Sigma-Aldrich, Germany 324590
Normal donkey serum Sigma-Aldrich, Germany D9663
Paraformaldehyde Sigma-Aldrich, Germany 158127
Penicilin and Streptomycin ThermoFisher Sientific, USA 15140122
Poly-L-lysine Sigma-Aldrich, Germany P5899
Potassium chloride Sigma-Aldrich, Germany P5405
Potassium dihydrogen phosphate Carlo Erba Reagents, Spain 471686
Shaker DELFIA PlateShake PerkinElmer Life Sciencies, USA
Sodium bicarbonate Sigma-Aldrich, Germany S3817
Sodium chloride Sigma-Aldrich, Germany S5886
Sodium phosphate dibasic heptahydrate Carl ROTH GmbH X987.2
Sodium pyruvate Sigma-Aldrich, Germany P5280
Thapsigargine Tocris Bioscience, UK 1138
Triton X - 100 Sigma-Aldrich, Germany T8787
Trypsin Sigma-Aldrich, Germany T4799
Vapro Vapor Pressure Osmometer 5520 Wescor, ELITechGroup Inc., USA
ViiFluor Imaging System Visitron System Gmbh, Germany
VisiChrome Polychromator System Visitron System Gmbh, Germany
VisiView high performance setup Visitron System Gmbh, Germany
Xenon Short Arc lamp Ushio, Japan



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Milićević, K., Korenić, A., Milošević, M., Andjus, P. R. Primary Cultures of Rat Astrocytes and Microglia and Their Use in the Study of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. J. Vis. Exp. (184), e63483, doi:10.3791/63483 (2022).More

Milićević, K., Korenić, A., Milošević, M., Andjus, P. R. Primary Cultures of Rat Astrocytes and Microglia and Their Use in the Study of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. J. Vis. Exp. (184), e63483, doi:10.3791/63483 (2022).

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