Expression of the translocator protein of 18 kDa by microglia, macrophages and astrocytes based on immunohistochemical localization in abnormal human brain

Neuropathol Appl Neurobiol. 2009 Jun;35(3):306-28. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2990.2008.01006.x. Epub 2008 Dec 11.


Aims: Microglia are involved in neurodegeneration, are prime targets for anti-inflammatory therapy and are potential biomarkers of disease progression. For example, positron emission tomography imaging employing radioligands for the mitochondrial translocator protein of 18 kDa (TSPO, formerly known as the peripheral benzodiazepine receptor) is being scrutinized to detect neuroinflammation in various diseases. TSPO is presumably present in activated microglia, but may be present in other neural cells.

Methods: We sought to elucidate the protein expression in normal human central nervous system, several neurological diseases (HIV encephalitis, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis and stroke) and simian immunodeficiency virus encephalitis by performing immunohistochemistry with two anti-TSPO antibodies.

Results: Although the overall parenchymal staining was minimal in normal brain, endothelial and smooth muscle cells, subpial glia, intravascular monocytes and ependymal cells were TSPO-positive. In disease states, elevated TSPO was present in parenchymal microglia, macrophages and some hypertrophic astrocytes, but the distribution of TSPO varied depending on the disease, disease stage and proximity to the lesion or relation to infection. Staining with the two antibodies correlated well in white matter, but one antibody also stained cortical neurones. Quantitative analysis demonstrated a significant increase in TSPO in the white matter of HIV encephalitis compared with brains without encephalitis. TSPO expression was also increased in simian immunodeficiency virus encephalitis.

Conclusions: This report provides the first comprehensive immunohistochemical analysis of the expression of TSPO. The results are useful for informing the usage of positron emission tomography as an imaging modality and have an impact on the potential use of TSPO as an anti-inflammatory pharmacological target.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Astrocytes / metabolism*
  • Brain / metabolism*
  • Brain Diseases / metabolism*
  • Encephalitis, Viral / metabolism
  • Endothelium / metabolism
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Macaca mulatta
  • Macaca nemestrina
  • Macrophages / metabolism*
  • Microglia / metabolism*
  • Middle Aged
  • Multiple Sclerosis / metabolism
  • Muscle, Smooth / metabolism
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Receptors, GABA / metabolism*
  • Simian Immunodeficiency Virus
  • Stroke / metabolism


  • Receptors, GABA
  • TSPO protein, human