Optic neuritis is an acute, demyelinating neuropathy of the optic nerve often representing the first appreciable symptom of multiple sclerosis. Wallerian degeneration of irreversibly damaged optic nerve axons leads to death of retinal ganglion cells, which is the cause of permanent visual impairment. Although the specific mechanisms responsible for triggering these events are unknown, it has been suggested that a key pathological factor is the activation of immune-inflammatory processes secondary to leukocyte infiltration. However, to date, there is no conclusive evidence to support such a causal role for infiltrating peripheral immune cells in the etiopathology of optic neuritis.
To dissect the contribution of the peripheral immune-inflammatory response versus the CNS-specific inflammatory response in the development of optic neuritis, we analyzed optic nerve and retinal ganglion cells pathology in wild-type and GFAP-IκBα-dn transgenic mice, where NF-κB is selectively inactivated in astrocytes, following induction of EAE.
We found that, in wild-type mice, axonal demyelination in the optic nerve occurred as early as 8 days post induction of EAE, prior to the earliest signs of leukocyte infiltration (20 days post induction). On the contrary, GFAP-IκBα-dn mice were significantly protected and showed a nearly complete prevention of axonal demyelination, as well as a drastic attenuation in retinal ganglion cell death. This correlated with a decrease in the expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines, chemokines, adhesion molecules, as well as a prevention of NAD(P)H oxidase subunit upregulation.
Our results provide evidence that astrocytes, not infiltrating immune cells, play a key role in the development of optic neuritis and that astrocyte-mediated neurotoxicity is dependent on activation of a transcriptional program regulated by NF-κB. Hence, interventions targeting the NF-κB transcription factor in astroglia may be of therapeutic value in the treatment of optic neuritis associated with multiple sclerosis.