Astrocytes migrate from human neural stem cell grafts and functionally integrate into the injured rat spinal cord

Exp Neurol. 2019 Apr;314:46-57. doi: 10.1016/j.expneurol.2019.01.006. Epub 2019 Jan 15.


Neural stem cells (NSCs) can differentiate into both neurons and glia after transplantation into spinal cord injury (SCI) sites. The neuronal component of stem cell grafts has the potential to form functional synaptic relays across the lesion site. The glial component may reform a blood-spinal cord barrier, support neuronal function, and contribute to remyelination. We performed a long-term, 1.5-year time course study focused on astrocyte migration, differentiation, integration, and safety following human NSC transplantation into C5 hemisection sites in immunodeficient rats. NSCs that adopted a neuronal fate did not migrate from the lesion site. In contrast, transplanted cells that adopted astrocyte fates exhibited long distance migration from the lesion site through host white matter in rostrocaudal directions. These cells migrated slowly at a mean rate of 2-3 mm/month, divided as they migrated, and gradually differentiated into astrocytes. After 1.5 years, human astrocytes migrated nine spinal cord segments, caudally to the mid-thoracic level, and rostrally into the brainstem. The migrated human astrocytes joined the endogenous population of astrocytes in the host spinal cord, extended perivascular endfeet towards host pericytes and endothelium, formed interspecies and intraspecies perivascular astrocytic networks connected by gap junctions, and expressed glutamate transporter proteins in perisynaptic processes, suggesting structural and functional integration. No adverse consequences of this extended glial migration were detected. Adjacent to the lesion site, chronic host astrocytic upregulation was significantly attenuated by NSC grafts. Thus, human astrocytes can migrate long distances from sites of SCI and safely integrate into the host central nervous system. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: Neural stem cell (NSC) grafts are a candidate therapy for spinal cord injury (SCI). Here we report an 18-month study of astrocyte survival and migration from sites of SCI in immunodeficient rats. NSC grafts significantly attenuate host astrocyte reactivity at the lesion/host interface. Intra-graft astrocytes integrate into the host blood-spinal cord barrier (BSCB) and widely express glutamate transporter proteins characteristic of neurotransmitter regulation. Notably, astrocytic components of NSC grafts exhibit gradual yet extensive migration after implantation into the mid-cervical injury site; neurons do not migrate at all. This extensive astrocyte migration is not detectably associated with adverse outcomes anatomically or behaviorally.

Keywords: Astrocytes; Astroglia; Blood-spinal cord barrier; Glial scar; Migration; Neurotransmitter regulation; Spinal cord injury.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Astrocytes*
  • Brain Stem / cytology
  • Cell Movement / physiology*
  • Cell Survival
  • Female
  • Gap Junctions
  • Heterografts
  • Humans
  • Immunocompromised Host
  • Nerve Net / cytology
  • Neural Stem Cells* / metabolism
  • Neurogenesis
  • Rats
  • Rats, Nude
  • Spinal Cord / cytology
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / pathology
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / psychology
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / therapy*
  • Stem Cell Transplantation
  • Vesicular Glutamate Transport Proteins / metabolism


  • Vesicular Glutamate Transport Proteins