The origin of Rosenthal fibers and their contributions to astrocyte pathology in Alexander disease

Acta Neuropathol Commun. 2017 Mar 31;5(1):27. doi: 10.1186/s40478-017-0425-9.


Rosenthal fibers (RFs) are cytoplasmic, proteinaceous aggregates. They are the pathognomonic feature of the astrocyte pathology in Alexander Disease (AxD), a neurodegenerative disorder caused by heterozygous mutations in the GFAP gene, encoding glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP). Although RFs have been known for many years their origin and significance remain elusive issues. We have used mouse models of AxD based on the overexpression of human GFAP (transgenic, TG) and a point mutation in mouse GFAP (knock-in, KI) to examine the formation of RFs and to find astrocyte changes that correlate with the appearance of RFs. We found RFs of various sizes and shapes. The smallest ones appear as granular depositions on intermediate filaments. These contain GFAP and the small heat shock protein, alphaB-crystallin. Their aggregation appears to give rise to large RFs. The appearance of new RFs and the growth of previously formed RFs occur over time. We determined that DAPI is a reliable marker of RFs and in parallel with Fluoro-Jade B (FJB) staining defined a high variability in the appearance of RFs, even in neighboring astrocytes. Although many astrocytes in AxD with increased levels of GFAP and with or without RFs change their phenotype, only some cells with large numbers of RFs show a profound reconstruction of cellular processes, with a loss of fine distal processes and the appearance of large, lobulated nuclei, likely due to arrested mitosis. We conclude that 1) RFs appear to originate as small, osmiophilic masses containing both GFAP and alphaB-crystallin deposited on bundles of intermediate filaments. 2) RFs continue to form within AxD astrocytes over time. 3) DAPI is a reliable marker for RFs and can be used with immunolabeling. 4) RFs appear to interfere with the successful completion of astrocyte mitosis and cell division.

Keywords: Alexander disease; Astrocytes; GFAP; Rosenthal fibers; alphaB-crystallin.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aging / metabolism
  • Aging / pathology
  • Alexander Disease / metabolism
  • Alexander Disease / pathology*
  • Animals
  • Astrocytes / metabolism
  • Astrocytes / pathology*
  • Cerebral Cortex / metabolism
  • Cerebral Cortex / pathology
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cytoplasm / metabolism
  • Cytoplasm / pathology*
  • Female
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein / genetics
  • Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Indoles
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Microscopy, Electron, Transmission
  • Mitosis / physiology
  • Point Mutation
  • Protein Aggregation, Pathological / metabolism
  • Protein Aggregation, Pathological / pathology
  • alpha-Crystallin B Chain / metabolism


  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein
  • Indoles
  • alpha-Crystallin B Chain
  • DAPI