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Unbiased multitissue transcriptomic analysis reveals complex neuroendocrine regulatory networks mediated by spinal cord injury-induced immunodeficiency

Published date

September 30, 2023


"Background: Spinal cord injury (SCI), which causes loss of sensory and motor function in the body below the level of injury, is a devastating disease of the central nervous system. SCI leads to severe secondary immunosuppression, called SCI-induced immunodeficiency syndrome (SCI-IDS), which is characterized by increased susceptibility to infection and further exacerbates neurological dysfunction. Several studies have suggested that SCI-IDS is an independent risk factor for poor neurological prognosis. SCI-IDS predominantly occurs following injury above the T5 levels and eventually leads to systemic immune failure, possibly via the sympathetic-adrenal medullary axis and the hypothalamic‒pituitary‒adrenal (HPA) axis. However, the mechanism remains unclear. Methods and objectives: The concentrations of adrenocorticotropic hormone and cortisol in plasma, as well as changes in sympathetic activity (blood pressure and catecholamine levels in plasma), were assessed in rats in the high-level (T3) spinal cord injury (T3-SCI) group and the low-level (T10) spinal cord injury (T10-SCI) group. Second, the differential regulation of the gene network between the sympathetic-adrenal medullary axis and the HPA axis was explored by histology and multitissue transcriptomics, and the neuroendocrine-immune network associated with SCI-IDS was further elucidated. Results: The spleen and thymus gland, which are secondary immune organs, were significantly atrophied in rats in the T3-SCI group, and the white pulp of the spleen was significantly atrophied. The level of cortisol, which is mediated by the adrenal glands, was markedly elevated, but norepinephrine levels were markedly decreased. There was no difference in adrenocorticotropic hormone expression between any of the groups. The transcriptome analysis results showed that the downregulated differentially expressed genes (DEGs) in the T3-SCI group were enriched in the GO term immunoregulation, indicating that splenic immune function was markedly impaired after high-level SCI. The upregulated DEGs in the hypothalamus (hub genes: Nod2, Serpine1, Cebpb, Nfkbil1, Ripk2, Zfp36, Traf6, Akap8, Gfer, Cxcl10, Tnfaip3, Icam1, Fcgr2b, Ager, Dusp10, and Mapkapk2) were significantly enriched in inflammatory pathways, and the downregulated genes (hub genes: Grm4, Nmu, P2ry12, rt1-bb1, Oprm1, Zfhx2, Gpr83, and Chrm2) were enriched in pathways related to inhibitory Gi-mediated G protein-coupled receptor (Gi-GPCR) neurons and neuropeptide changes. The upregulated genes in the adrenal glands (hub genes: Ciart, per2, per3, cry1, and cry2) were enriched in cortisol secretion and circadian rhythm changes, and the downregulated genes (hub genes: IL7r, rt1-bb, rt1-bb1, rt1-da, rt1-ba, cd74, cxcr3, vcam1, ccl5, bin1, and IL8) were significantly enriched in MHC-mediated immune responses. Conclusions: To explore the possible mechanism underlying SCI-IDS, this study assessed the differential regulation of the gene network associated with neuroendocrine immunity after SCI. Progressive neuroinflammation spreads after injury, and neurotransmission through Gi-mediated G protein-coupled receptors in the HPA axis and neuropeptide production by the hypothalamus are inhibited. Disruption of the connection between the hypothalamus and the adrenal glands causes autonomous regulation of the adrenal glands, disturbance of circadian rhythm and finally hypercortisolemia, leading to general suppression of peripheral adaptive immunity. Neuraxial nerve inflammation caused by SCI persists indefinitely, blocking nerve repair; persistent system-wide immunosuppression in the periphery results in increased susceptibility to infection, leading to poor neurological prognosis."

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