Differences in neurotropism and neurotoxicity among retrograde viral tracers

Mol Neurodegener. 2019 Feb 8;14(1):8. doi: 10.1186/s13024-019-0308-6.


Background: Neurotropic virus-based tracers have been extensively applied in mapping and manipulation of neural circuits. However, their neurotropic and neurotoxic properties remain to be fully characterized.

Methods: Through neural circuit tracing, we systematically compared the neurotropism discrepancy among different multi-trans-synaptic and mono-synaptic retrograde viral tracers including pseudorabies virus (PRV), rabies virus (RV), and the newly engineered retro adeno-associated virus (rAAV2-retro) tracers. The (single-cell) RNA sequencing analysis was utilized for seeking possible attribution to neurotropism discrepancy and comparing cell toxicity caused by viral infection between glycoprotein-deleted RV (RV-∆G) and rAAV2-retro. Viral toxicity induced microglia activation and neuronal protein change were evaluated by immunohistochemistry.

Results: Multi-trans-synaptic retrograde viral tracers, PRV and RV, exhibit differential neurotropism when they were used for central neural circuit tracing from popliteal lymph nodes. Mono-synaptic retrograde tracers, including RV-∆G and rAAV2-retro, displayed discrepant neurotropic property, when they were applied to trace the inputs of lateral hypothalamic area and medial preoptic nucleus. rAAV2-retro demonstrated preference in cerebral cortex, whereas RV-∆G prefers to label basal ganglia and hypothalamus. Remarkably, we detected a distinct preference for specific cortical layer of rAAV2-retro in layer 5 and RV-∆G in layer 6 when they were injected into dorsal lateral geniculate nucleus to label corticothalamic neurons in primary visual cortex. Complementation of TVA receptor gene in RV-resistant neurons enabled EnvA-pseudotyped RV infection, supporting receptors attribution to viral neurotropism. Furthermore, both RV-∆G and rAAV2-retro exerted neurotoxic influence at the injection sites and retrogradely labeled sites, while the changes were more profound for RV-∆G infection. Finally, we demonstrated a proof-of-concept strategy for more comprehensive high-order circuit tracing of a specific target nucleus by combining rAAV2-retro, RV, and rAAV tracers.

Conclusions: Different multi-trans-synaptic and mono-synaptic retrograde viral tracers exhibited discrepant neurotropism within certain brain regions, even cortical layer preference. More neurotoxicity was observed under RV-∆G infection as compared with rAAV2-retro. By combining rAAV2-retro, RV, and rAAV tracers, high-order circuit tracing can be achieved. Our findings provide important reference for appropriate application of viral tracers to delineate the landscape and dissect the function of neural network.

Keywords: Mono-synaptic Tracing; Multi-trans-synaptic Tracing; Neurotoxicity; Neurotropic Virus; Neurotropism; RNA Sequencing; Retrograde tracing; pseudorabies virus (PRV); rAAV2-retro; rabies virus (RV).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / virology*
  • Dependovirus*
  • Fluorescent Dyes*
  • Herpesvirus 1, Suid*
  • Luminescent Proteins
  • Mice
  • Parvoviridae Infections / pathology
  • Pseudorabies / pathology
  • Rabies / pathology
  • Rabies virus*
  • Viral Tropism


  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Luminescent Proteins