To investigate differences among brain-derived microglia and other classes of immune cells, we compared the morphologies and growth properties of mononuclear phagocytes isolated from tissues of the newborn rat. Scanning EM shows that microglia from postnatal rat brain are covered with spines (typically > 20 per cell body) in a distinctive manner which contrasts the smooth surfaces of bone marrow cells and the ruffled surfaces of tissue macrophages from spleen, liver, and peritoneum. The spine-bearing surface of microglia is a specific cell marker, for it does not change with age or after exposure to cytokines or other immunostimulants. Approximately 99% of mononuclear phagocytes cultured from normal adult rat brain are spinous microglia. Five days after injury to rat brain, cells at sites of Wallerian degeneration are essentially all spinous ones while nearly 30% of cells found within areas of infarction or penetrating trauma are invading macrophages. In a similar way, nearly all cells isolated from normal, postmortem adult human brain are spine-bearing microglia (> 99% homogeneity). Brains from patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis contain only spinous microglia whereas cells from HIV-1 infected brains include significant numbers of invading ruffled macrophages. Cultured microglia, unlike cultured bone marrow precursors, monocytes, or tissue macrophages, spontaneously develop long, thin processes that extend hundreds of microns in length. Microglia retract these processes after exposure to fetal bovine serum, laminin, or such immunostimulants as recombinant murine interferon gamma (rmIFN gamma) and lipopolysaccharide. Of all types of mononuclear phagocytes tested, only microglia differentiate into quiescent ramified cells when in contact with astrocytes. Thus, microglia represent a unique class of cell maintained, in part, by astroglia as dormant, ramified mononuclear phagocytes in mature CNS. Application of cell surface criteria described here will allow study of distinct populations of mononuclear phagocytes associated with neurologic disorders.