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Glia. 2001 Nov;36(2):191-9.

Control of glial immune function by neurons.

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  • 1Neuroimmunology, Max-Planck Institute of Neurobiology, Martinsried, Germany.


The immune status of the central nervous system (CNS) is strictly regulated. In the healthy brain, immune responses are kept to a minimum. In contrast, in a variety of inflammatory and neurodegenerative diseases, including multiple sclerosis, infections, trauma, stroke, neoplasia, and Alzheimer's disease, glial cells such as microglia gain antigen-presenting capacity through the expression of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) molecules. Further, proinflammatory cytokines, such as tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF), interleukin-1beta (IL-1beta), and interferon-gamma (IFN-gamma), as well as chemokines, are synthesized by resident brain cells and T lymphocytes invade the affected brain tissue. The proinflammatory cytokines stimulate microglial MHC expression in the lesioned CNS areas only. However, the induction of brain immunity is strongly counterregulated in intact CNS areas. For instance, recent work demonstrated that microglia are kept in a quiescent state in the intact CNS by local interactions between the microglia receptor CD200 and its ligand, which is expressed on neurons. Work done in our laboratory showed that neurons suppressed MHC expression in surrounding glial cells, in particular microglia and astrocytes. This control of MHC expression by neurons was dependent on their electrical activity. In brain tissue with intact neurons, the MHC class II inducibility of microglia and astrocytes by the proinflammatory cytokine IFN-gamma was reduced. Paralysis of neuronal electric activity by neurotoxins restored the induction of MHC molecules on microglia and astrocytes. Loss of neurons or their physiological activity would render the impaired CNS areas recognizable by invading T lymphocytes. Thus, immunity in the CNS is inhibited by the local microenvironment, in particular by physiologically active neurons, to prevent unwanted immune mediated damage of neurons.

Copyright 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.

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