Liver macrophages and inflammation in physiology and physiopathology of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

FEBS J. 2021 Apr 15. doi: 10.1111/febs.15877. Online ahead of print.


Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the hepatic manifestation of metabolic syndrome, being a common comorbidity of type 2 diabetes and with important links to inflammation and insulin resistance. NAFLD represents a spectrum of liver conditions ranging from steatosis in the form of ectopic lipid storage, to inflammation and fibrosis in nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH). Macrophages that populate the liver play important roles in maintaining liver homeostasis under normal physiology and in promoting inflammation and mediating fibrosis in the progression of NAFLD toward to NASH. Liver macrophages are a heterogenous group of innate immune cells, originating from the yolk sac or from circulating monocytes, that are required to maintain immune tolerance while being exposed portal and pancreatic blood flow rich in nutrients and hormones. Yet, liver macrophages retain a limited capacity to raise the alarm in response to danger signals. We now know that macrophages in the liver play both inflammatory and noninflammatory roles throughout the progression of NAFLD. Macrophage responses are mediated first at the level of cell surface receptors that integrate environmental stimuli, signals are transduced through multiple levels of regulation in the cell, and specific transcriptional programmes dictate effector functions. These effector functions play paramount roles in determining the course of disease in NAFLD and even more so in the progression towards NASH. The current review covers recent reports in the physiological and pathophysiological roles of liver macrophages in NAFLD. We emphasise the responses of liver macrophages to insulin resistance and the transcriptional machinery that dictates liver macrophage function.

Keywords: NAFLD; NASH; inflammation; liver; macrophages.

Publication types

  • Review