Myelin phagocytosis by astrocytes after myelin damage promotes lesion pathology

Brain. 2017 Feb;140(2):399-413. doi: 10.1093/brain/aww298. Epub 2016 Dec 21.


Astrocytes are key players in the pathology of multiple sclerosis and can assume beneficial and detrimental roles during lesion development. The triggers and timing of the different astroglial responses in acute lesions remain unclear. Astrocytes in acute multiple sclerosis lesions have been shown previously to contain myelin debris, although its significance has not been examined. We hypothesized that myelin phagocytosis by astrocytes is an early event during lesion formation and leads to astroglial immune responses. We examined multiple sclerosis lesions and other central nervous system pathologies with prominent myelin injury, namely, progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, metachromatic leukodystrophy and subacute infarct. In all conditions, we found that myelin debris was present in most astrocytes at sites of acute myelin breakdown, indicating that astroglial myelin phagocytosis is an early and prominent feature. Functionally, myelin debris was taken up by astrocytes through receptor-mediated endocytosis and resulted in astroglial NF-κB activation and secretion of chemokines. These in vitro results in rats were validated in human disease where myelin-positive hypertrophic astrocytes showed increased nuclear localization of NF-κB and elevated chemokine expression compared to myelin-negative, reactive astrocytes. Thus, our data suggest that myelin uptake is an early response of astrocytes in diseases with prominent myelin injury that results in recruitment of immune cells. This first line response of astrocytes to myelin injury may exert beneficial or detrimental effects on the lesion pathology, depending on the inflammatory context. Modulating this response might be of therapeutic relevance in multiple sclerosis and other demyelinating conditions.

Keywords: T-lymphocytes; astrocyte; demyelination; multiple sclerosis and neuroinflammation; neuroimmunology.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn
  • Astrocytes / metabolism*
  • Astrocytes / pathology
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Child, Preschool
  • Culture
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Demyelinating Autoimmune Diseases, CNS / pathology*
  • Endocytosis / drug effects
  • Endocytosis / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrazones / pharmacology
  • Macrophages / metabolism
  • Macrophages / pathology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Myelin Sheath / metabolism*
  • Myelin Sheath / pathology*
  • Phagocytosis / physiology*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Stroke / pathology
  • Time Factors
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta / pharmacology


  • Cytokines
  • Hydrazones
  • N'-(3,4-dihydroxybenzylidene)-3-hydroxy-2-naphthahydrazide
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta