Using a mouse model of spinal injury, Michal Schwartz and colleagues tested the effect of macrophages on the recovery process and demonstrate an important anti-inflammatory role for a subset of infiltrating monocyte-derived macrophages that is dependent upon their expression of interleukin 10.
Although macrophages (MΦ) are known as essential players in wound healing, their contribution to recovery from spinal cord injury (SCI) is a subject of debate. The difficulties in distinguishing between different MΦ subpopulations at the lesion site have further contributed to the controversy and led to the common view of MΦ as functionally homogenous. Given the massive accumulation in the injured spinal cord of activated resident microglia, which are the native immune occupants of the central nervous system (CNS), the recruitment of additional infiltrating monocytes from the peripheral blood seems puzzling. A key question that remains is whether the infiltrating monocyte-derived MΦ contribute to repair, or represent an unavoidable detrimental response. The hypothesis of the current study is that a specific population of infiltrating monocyte-derived MΦ is functionally distinct from the inflammatory resident microglia and is essential for recovery from SCI.
Methods and Findings
We inflicted SCI in adult mice, and tested the effect of infiltrating monocyte-derived MΦ on the recovery process. Adoptive transfer experiments and bone marrow chimeras were used to functionally distinguish between the resident microglia and the infiltrating monocyte-derived MΦ. We followed the infiltration of the monocyte-derived MΦ to the injured site and characterized their spatial distribution and phenotype. Increasing the naïve monocyte pool by either adoptive transfer or CNS-specific vaccination resulted in a higher number of spontaneously recruited cells and improved recovery. Selective ablation of infiltrating monocyte-derived MΦ following SCI while sparing the resident microglia, using either antibody-mediated depletion or conditional ablation by diphtheria toxin, impaired recovery. Reconstitution of the peripheral blood with monocytes resistant to ablation restored the lost motor functions. Importantly, the infiltrating monocyte-derived MΦ displayed a local anti-inflammatory beneficial role, which was critically dependent upon their expression of interleukin 10.
The results of this study attribute a novel anti-inflammatory role to a unique subset of infiltrating monocyte-derived MΦ in SCI recovery, which cannot be provided by the activated resident microglia. According to our results, limited recovery following SCI can be attributed in part to the inadequate, untimely, spontaneous recruitment of monocytes. This process is amenable to boosting either by active vaccination with a myelin-derived altered peptide ligand, which indicates involvement of adaptive immunity in monocyte recruitment, or by augmenting the naïve monocyte pool in the peripheral blood. Thus, our study sheds new light on the long-held debate regarding the contribution of MΦ to recovery from CNS injuries, and has potentially far-reaching therapeutic implications.
Please see later in the article for Editors' Summary
Every year, spinal cord injuries paralyze about 11,000 people in the US. The spinal cord, which contains bundles of nervous system cells called neurons, is the communication highway between the brain and the body. Messages from the brain travel down the spinal cord to control movement, breathing and other bodily functions; messages from the skin and other sensory organs travel up the spinal cord to keep the brain informed about the body. The bones of the spine normally protect the spinal cord but, if these are broken or displaced, the spinal cord can be cut or compressed, which interrupts the information flow. Damage near the top of the spinal cord paralyzes the arms and legs (tetraplegia); damage lower down paralyzes the legs only (paraplegia). Spinal cord injuries also cause other medical problems, including the loss of bladder and bowel control. Currently, there is no effective treatment for spinal cord injuries, which usually cause permanent disability because the damaged nerve fibers rarely regrow.
Why Was This Study Done?
After a spinal cord injury, immune system cells called macrophages accumulate at the injury site. Some of these macrophages—so-called monocyte-derived macrophages—come into (infiltrate) the spinal cord from the blood in response to the injury, whereas others—microglia—are always in the nervous system. Although macrophages are essential for wound healing in other parts of the body, it is unclear whether they have good or bad effects in the spinal cord. Many experts believe that immune system cells hinder healing in the spinal cord and should be suppressed or eliminated, but other scientists claim that macrophages secrete factors that stimulate nerve regrowth. Furthermore, although some macrophages elsewhere in the body have proinflammatory (potentially deleterious) effects, others have anti-inflammatory (beneficial) effects. So do the infiltrating monocyte-derived macrophages and the resident microglia (which are proinflammatory) have different functions at spinal cord injury sites? In this study, the researchers try to answer this important question.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers bruised a small section of the spinal cord of adult mice and then investigated the effect of infiltrating monocyte-derived macrophages on the recovery process. Monocyte-derived macrophages and microglia cannot be distinguished using standard staining techniques so to study their behavior after spinal cord injury the researchers introduced labeled monocyte-derived macrophages into their experimental animals by using adoptive transfer (injection of genetically labeled monocytes into the animals) or by making bone marrow chimeras. In this second technique, the animals' monocyte-derived macrophages (but not their microglia) were killed by irradiating the animals before injection of genetically labeled bone marrow, the source of monocytes. Using these approaches, the researchers found that monocyte-derived macrophages collected at the margins of spinal cord injury sites whereas microglia accumulated throughout the sites. When the pool of monocyte-derived macrophages in the mice was increased by adoptive transfer or by using a technique called “CNS-specific vaccination,” more monocyte-derived macrophages infiltrated the injury site and the animals' physical recovery from injury improved. Conversely, removal of the infiltrating monocyte-derived macrophages from the injury site reduced the animals' physical recovery. Other experiments indicated that the infiltrating monocyte-derived macrophages have a beneficial, local anti-inflammatory effect that is dependent on their expression of interleukin-10 (an anti-inflammatory signaling molecule).
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings provide new information about the contribution of monocyte-derived macrophages to spontaneous recovery from spinal cord injury, a contribution that has long been debated. In particular, the findings suggest that this subset of macrophages (but not the resident microglia) has a beneficial effect on spinal cord injuries that is mediated by their production of the anti-inflammatory molecule interleukin-10. The findings also show that the effect of these monocyte-derived macrophages can be boosted, at least in mice. Although results obtained in experiments done in animals do not always accurately reflect what happens in people, this new understanding of the different functions of microglia and infiltrating monocyte-derived macrophages after injury to the spinal cord may eventually lead to the development of better treatments for spinal cord injuries.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000113.
The MedlinePlus encyclopedia provides information about spinal cord injuries (in English and Spanish)
The US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke provides detailed information about spinal cord injury, including information on current research into the problem (in English and Spanish)
MedlinePlus provides an interactive tutorial on spinal cord injury and a list of links to additional information (in English and Spanish)