Neural stem cell-derived small extracellular vesicles attenuate apoptosis and neuroinflammation after traumatic spinal cord injury by activating autophagy

Cell Death Dis. 2019 Apr 18;10(5):340. doi: 10.1038/s41419-019-1571-8.


Spinal cord injury (SCI) can cause severe irreversible motor dysfunction and even death. Neural stem cell (NSC) transplantation can promote functional recovery after acute SCI in experimental animals, but numerous issues, including low-transplanted cell survival rate, cell de-differentiation, and tumor formation need to be resolved before routine clinical application is feasible. Recent studies have shown that transplanted stem cells facilitate regeneration through release of paracrine factors. Small extracellular vesicles (sEVs), the smallest known membrane-bound nanovesicles, are involved in complex intercellular communication systems and are an important vehicle for paracrine delivery of therapeutic agents. However, the application of NSC-derived small extracellular vesicles (NSC-sEVs) to SCI treatment has not been reported. We demonstrate that NSC-sEVs can significantly reduce the extent of SCI, improve functional recovery, and reduce neuronal apoptosis, microglia activation, and neuroinflammation in rats. Furthermore, our study suggests that NSC-sEVs can regulate apoptosis and inflammatory processes by inducing autophagy. In brief, NSC-sEVs increased the expression of the autophagy marker proteins LC3B and beclin-1, and promoted autophagosome formation. Following NSC-sEV infusion, the SCI area was significantly reduced, and the expression levels of the proapoptotic protein Bax, the apoptosis effector cleaved caspase-3, and the pro-inflammatory cytokines TNF-α, IL-1β, and IL-6 were significantly reduced, whereas the expression level of the anti-apoptotic protein Bcl-2 was upregulated. In the presence of the autophagy inhibitor 3MA, however, these inhibitory effects of NSC-sEVs on apoptosis and neuroinflammation were significantly reversed. Our results show for the first time that NSC-sEV treatment has the potential to reduce neuronal apoptosis, inhibit neuroinflammation, and promote functional recovery in SCI model rats at an early stage by promoting autophagy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Apoptosis* / drug effects
  • Autophagy* / drug effects
  • Beclin-1 / metabolism
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Extracellular Vesicles / metabolism*
  • Extracellular Vesicles / transplantation
  • Fetus / cytology
  • Glutamic Acid / pharmacology
  • Inflammation
  • Locomotion
  • Macrophages / cytology
  • Macrophages / drug effects
  • Macrophages / metabolism
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Microtubule-Associated Proteins / metabolism
  • Neural Stem Cells / cytology
  • Neural Stem Cells / metabolism
  • Neurons / cytology
  • Neurons / metabolism
  • Neurons / pathology
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / metabolism
  • Spinal Cord Injuries / pathology*


  • Beclin-1
  • Cytokines
  • Microtubule-Associated Proteins
  • Glutamic Acid