Immunofluorescence characterization of spinal cord dorsal horn microglia and astrocytes in horses

PeerJ. 2017 Oct 27:5:e3965. doi: 10.7717/peerj.3965. eCollection 2017.


The role of glial cells in pain modulation has recently gathered attention. The objective of this study was to determine healthy spinal microglia and astrocyte morphology and disposition in equine spinal cord dorsal horns using Iba-1 and GFAP/Cx-43 immunofluorescence labeling, respectively. Five adult horses without visible wounds or gait alterations were selected. Spinal cord segments were obtained post-mortem for immunohistochemical and immunocolocalization assays. Immunodetection of spinal cord dorsal horn astrocytes was done using a polyclonal goat antibody raised against Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein (GFAP) and a polyclonal rabbit antibody against Connexin 43 (Cx-43). For immunodetection of spinal cord dorsal horn microglia, a polyclonal rabbit antibody against a synthetic peptide corresponding to the C-terminus of ionized calcium-binding adaptor molecule 1 (Iba-1) was used. Epifluorescence and confocal images were obtained for the morphological and organizational analysis. Evaluation of shape, area, cell diameter, cell process length and thickness was performed on dorsal horn microglia and astrocyte. Morphologically, an amoeboid spherical shape with a mean cell area of 92.4 + 34 µm2 (in lamina I, II and III) was found in horse microglial cells, located primarily in laminae I, II and III. Astrocyte primary stem branches (and cellular bodies to a much lesser extent) are mainly detected using GFAP. Thus, double GFAP/Cx-43 immunolabeling was needed in order to accurately characterize the morphology, dimension and cell density of astrocytes in horses. Horse and rodent astrocytes seem to have similar dimensions and localization. Horse astrocyte cells have an average diameter of 56 + 14 µm, with a main process length of 28 + 8 µm, and thickness of 1.4 + 0.3 µm, mainly situated in laminae I, II and III. Additionally, a close association between end-point astrocyte processes and microglial cell bodies was found. These results are the first characterization of cell morphology and organizational aspects of horse spinal glia. Iba-1 and GFAP/Cx-43 can successfully immune-label microglia and astrocytes respectively in horse spinal cords, and thus reveal cell morphology and corresponding distribution within the dorsal horn laminae of healthy horses. The conventional hyper-ramified shape that is normally visible in resting microglial cells was not found in horses. Instead, horse microglial cells had an amoeboid spherical shape. Horse protoplasmic astroglia is significantly smaller and structurally less complex than human astrocytes, with fewer main GFAP processes. Instead, horse astrocytes tend to be similar to those found in rodent's model, with small somas and large cell processes. Microglia and astrocytes were found in the more superficial regions of the dorsal horn, similarly to that previously observed in humans and rodents. Further studies are needed to demonstrate the molecular mechanisms involved in the neuron-glia interaction in horses.

Keywords: Astrocyte; Cx-43; GFAP; Horses; Iba-1; Microglia.

Grants and funding

This work was supported by the Dirección de Investigación y Desarrollo, Universidad Austral de Chile, Project S-2014-26. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.