Social defeat induces depressive-like states and microglial activation without involvement of peripheral macrophages

J Neuroinflammation. 2016 Aug 31;13(1):224. doi: 10.1186/s12974-016-0672-x.


Background: We are interested in the causal interactions between psychological stress and activity within different compartments of the immune system. Psychosocial stress has been reported to not only alter microglia morphology but also produce anxiety-like and depressive-like effects by triggering CNS infiltration of macrophages from the periphery. We sought to test these phenomena in a somewhat different but standardized model of chronic social defeat (SD) stress.

Methods: We used a paradigm of dyadic home pairing of dominant and subordinate mice that has been validated to induce powerful anxiety-like and depressive-like effects manifested by behavior assessed in social tasks. We administered the SD stress for 3 days (acute SD) or 14 days (chronic SD) and looked for monocyte entry into the brain by three independent means, including CD45 activation states assessed by flow cytometry and tracking fluorescently tagged peripheral cells from Ccr2 (wt/rfp) and Ubc (gfp/gfp) reporter mice. We further characterized the effects of SD stress on microglia using quantitative morphometric analysis, ex vivo phagocytosis assays, flow cytometry, and immunochemistry.

Results: We saw no evidence of stress-induced macrophage entry after acute or chronic defeat stress. In comparison, brain infiltration of peripheral cells did occur after endotoxin administration. Furthermore, mutant mice lacking infiltrating macrophages due to CCR2 knockout developed the same degree of chronic SD-induced depressive behavior as wildtype mice. We therefore focused more closely on the intrinsic immune cells, the microglia. Using Cx3cr1 (wt/gpf) microglial reporter mice, we saw by quantitative methods that microglial morphology was not altered by stress at either time point. However, chronic SD mice had elevated numbers of CD68(hi) microglia examined by flow cytometry. CD68 is a marker for phagocytic activity. Indeed, these cells ex vivo showed elevated phagocytosis, confirming the increased activation status of chronic SD microglia. Finally, acute SD but not chronic SD increased microglial proliferation, which occurred selectively in telencephalic stress-related brain areas.

Conclusions: In the SD paradigm, changes in CNS-resident microglia numbers and activation states might represent the main immunological component of the psychosocial stress-induced depressive state.

Keywords: Depression; Macrophage; Microglia; Microglial proliferation; Neuroimmune; Stress.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Depression / immunology
  • Depression / metabolism
  • Depression / pathology*
  • Female
  • Macrophages / immunology
  • Macrophages / metabolism
  • Macrophages / pathology*
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Microglia / immunology
  • Microglia / metabolism
  • Microglia / pathology*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Stress, Psychological / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological / pathology*
  • Stress, Psychological / psychology