Little is known about the mechanisms leading to neurodegeneration in multiple sclerosis (MS) and the role of peripheral blood cells in this neurodegenerative component. We aimed to correlate brain radiological phenotypes defined by high and low neurodegeneration with gene expression profiling of peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC) from MS patients. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans from 64 patients with relapsing-remitting MS (RRMS) were classified into radiological phenotypes characterized by low (N = 27) and high (N = 37) neurodegeneration according to the number of contrast-enhancing lesions, the relative volume of non-enhancing black holes on T1-weighted images, and the brain parenchymal fraction. Gene expression profiling was determined in PBMC using microarrays, and validation of selected genes was performed by polymerase chain reaction (PCR). B-cell immunophenotyping was conducted by flow cytometry. Microarray analysis revealed the B-cell specific genes FCRL1, FCRL2, FCRL5 (Fc receptor-like 1, 2 and 5 respectively), and CD22 as the top differentially expressed genes between patients with high and low neurodegeneration. Levels for these genes were significantly down-regulated in PBMC from patients with MRI phenotypes characterized by high neurodegeneration and microarray findings were validated by PCR. In patients with high neurodegeneration, immunophenotyping showed a significant increase in the expression of the B-cell activation markers CD80 in naïve B cells (CD45+/CD19+/CD27-/IgD+), unswitched memory B cells (CD45+/CD19+/CD27+/IgD+), and switched memory B cells (CD45+/CD19+/CD27+/IgD-), and CD86 in naïve and switched memory B cells. These results suggest that RRMS patients with radiological phenotypes showing high neurodegeneration have changes in B cells characterized by down-regulation of B-cell-specific genes and increased activation status.
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