Gamma Interferon Alters Junctional Integrity via Rho Kinase, Resulting in Blood-Brain Barrier Leakage in Experimental Viral Encephalitis

mBio. 2019 Aug 6;10(4):e01675-19. doi: 10.1128/mBio.01675-19.


Blood-brain barrier (BBB) breakdown is a hallmark of many diseases of the central nervous system (CNS). Loss of BBB integrity in CNS diseases such as viral encephalitis results in the loss of nutrient/oxygen delivery, rapid infiltration of immune cells, and brain swelling that can exacerbate neuronal injury. Despite this, the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie BBB breakdown in viral encephalitis are incompletely understood. We undertook a comprehensive analysis of the cellular and molecular signaling events that induce BBB breakdown in an experimental model of virus-induced encephalitis in which neonatal mice are infected with reovirus (serotype 3 strain Abney). We show that BBB leakage during reovirus infection correlates with morphological changes in the vasculature, reductions in pericytes (BBB supporting cells), and disorganization of vascular junctions. Pathway analysis on RNA sequencing from brain endothelial cells identified the activation of interferon (IFN) signaling within the brain vasculature following reovirus infection. Our in vitro and in vivo studies show that type II IFN mediated by IFN-γ, a well known antiviral signal, is a major contributor to BBB leakage during reovirus infection. We show that IFN-γ reduces barrier properties in cultured brain endothelial cells through Rho kinase (ROCK)-mediated cytoskeletal contractions, resulting in junctional disorganization and cell-cell separations. In vivo neutralization of IFN-γ during reovirus infection significantly improved BBB integrity, pericyte coverage, attenuated vascular ROCK activity, and junctional disorganization. Our work supports a model in which IFN-γ acts directly on the brain endothelium to induce BBB breakdown through a mechanism involving ROCK-induced junctional disorganization.IMPORTANCE In an experimental viral encephalitis mouse model in which mice are infected with reovirus, we show that IFN-γ induces blood-brain barrier leakage. We show that IFN-γ promotes Rho kinase activity, resulting in actin cytoskeletal contractions in the brain endothelium that lead to vascular junctional disorganization and cell-cell separations. These studies now provide insight into a previously unknown mechanism for how blood-brain barrier breakdown occurs in viral encephalitis and implicates IFN-γ-Rho kinase activity as major contributor to this phenomenon. By identifying this mechanism of blood-brain barrier breakdown, we now provide potential therapeutic targets in treating patients with viral causes of encephalitis with the hope of limiting damage to the central nervous system.

Keywords: blood-brain barrier; encephalitis; interferon gamma; reovirus; viral encephalitis.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / metabolism*
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / virology
  • Brain / enzymology
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / virology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Encephalitis, Viral / genetics
  • Encephalitis, Viral / metabolism*
  • Encephalitis, Viral / virology
  • Endothelial Cells / enzymology
  • Endothelial Cells / metabolism
  • Endothelial Cells / virology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interferon-gamma / genetics
  • Interferon-gamma / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Mammalian orthoreovirus 3 / physiology*
  • Mice
  • Reoviridae Infections / genetics
  • Reoviridae Infections / metabolism*
  • Reoviridae Infections / virology
  • rho-Associated Kinases / genetics
  • rho-Associated Kinases / metabolism*


  • Interferon-gamma
  • Rock1 protein, mouse
  • Rock2 protein, mouse
  • rho-Associated Kinases