Background: It has become increasingly evident that the immune and nervous systems are closely intertwined, relying on one another during regular homeostatic conditions. Prolonged states of imbalance between neural and immune homeostasis, such as chronic neuroinflammation, are associated with a higher risk for neural damage. Toxoplasma gondii is a highly successful neurotropic parasite causing persistent subclinical neuroinflammation, which is associated with psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders. Little is known, however, by what means neuroinflammation and the associated neural impairment can be modulated by peripheral inflammatory processes.
Methods: Expression of immune and synapse-associated genes was assessed via quantitative real-time PCR to investigate how T. gondii infection-induced chronic neuroinflammation and associated neuronal alterations can be reshaped by a subsequent acute intestinal nematode co-infection. Immune cell subsets were characterized via flow cytometry in the brain of infected mice. Sulfadiazine and interferon-γ-neutralizing antibody were applied to subdue neuroinflammation.
Results: Neuroinflammation induced by T. gondii infection of mice was associated with increased microglia activation, recruitment of immune cells into the brain exhibiting Th1 effector functions, and enhanced production of Th1 and pro-inflammatory molecules (IFN-γ, iNOS, IL-12, TNF, IL-6, and IL-1β) following co-infection with Heligmosomoides polygyrus. The accelerated cerebral Th1 immune response resulted in enhanced T. gondii removal but exacerbated the inflammation-related decrease of synapse-associated gene expression. Synaptic proteins EAAT2 and GABAAα1, which are involved in the excitation/inhibition balance in the CNS, were affected in particular. These synaptic alterations were partially recovered by reducing neuroinflammation indirectly via antiparasitic treatment and especially by application of IFN-γ-neutralizing antibody. Impaired iNOS expression following IFN-γ neutralization directly affected EAAT2 and GABAAα1 signaling, thus contributing to the microglial regulation of neurons. Besides, reduced CD36, TREM2, and C1qa gene expression points toward inflammation induced synaptic pruning as a fundamental mechanism.
Conclusion: Our results suggest that neuroimmune responses following chronic T. gondii infection can be modulated by acute enteric nematode co-infection. While consecutive co-infection promotes parasite elimination in the CNS, it also adversely affects gene expression of synaptic proteins, via an IFN-γ-dependent manner.
Keywords: Co-infection; Heligmosomoides polygyrus; Immunomodulation; Neuroinflammation; Toxoplasma gondii.