Although human endogenous retroviruses (HERVs) represent a substantial proportion of the human genome and some HERVs, such as HERV-K(HML-2), are reported to be involved in neurological disorders, little is known about their biological function. We report that RNA from an HERV-K(HML-2) envelope gene region binds to and activates human Toll-like receptor (TLR) 8, as well as murine Tlr7, expressed in neurons and microglia, thereby causing neurodegeneration. HERV-K(HML-2) RNA introduced into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of either C57BL/6 wild-type mice or APPPS1 mice, a mouse model for Alzheimer's disease (AD), resulted in neurodegeneration and microglia accumulation. Tlr7-deficient mice were protected against neurodegenerative effects but were resensitized toward HERV-K(HML-2) RNA when neurons ectopically expressed murine Tlr7 or human TLR8. Transcriptome data sets of human AD brain samples revealed a distinct correlation of upregulated HERV-K(HML-2) and TLR8 RNA expression. HERV-K(HML-2) RNA was detectable more frequently in CSF from individuals with AD compared with controls. Our data establish HERV-K(HML-2) RNA as an endogenous ligand for species-specific TLRs 7/8 and imply a functional contribution of human endogenous retroviral transcripts to neurodegenerative processes, such as AD.
Keywords: Alzheimer’s disease; Immunology; Innate immunity; Neurodegeneration; Neuroscience.