Circulating HMGB1 is elevated in veterans with Gulf War Illness and triggers the persistent pro-inflammatory microglia phenotype in male C57Bl/6J mice

Transl Psychiatry. 2021 Jul 12;11(1):390. doi: 10.1038/s41398-021-01517-1.


Gulf War Illness (GWI) is a chronic, multi-symptom peripheral and CNS condition with persistent microglial dysregulation, but the mechanisms driving the continuous neuroimmune pathology are poorly understood. The alarmin HMGB1 is an autocrine and paracrine pro-inflammatory signal, but the role of circulating HMGB1 in persistent neuroinflammation and GWI remains largely unknown. Using the LPS model of the persistent microglial pro-inflammatory response, male C57Bl/6J mice injected with LPS (5 mg/kg IP) exhibited persistent changes in microglia morphology and elevated pro-inflammatory markers in the hippocampus, cortex, and midbrain 7 days after LPS injection, while the peripheral immune response had resolved. Ex vivo serum analysis revealed an augmented pro-inflammatory response to LPS when microglia cells were cultured with the 7-day LPS serum, indicating the presence of bioactive circulating factors that prime the microglial pro-inflammatory response. Elevated circulating HMGB1 levels were identified in the mouse serum 7 days after LPS administration and in the serum of veterans with GWI. Tail vein injection of rHMGB1 in male C57Bl/6 J mice elevated TNFα mRNA levels in the liver, hippocampus, and cortex, demonstrating HMGB1-induced peripheral and CNS effects. Microglia isolated at 7 days after LPS injection revealed a unique transcriptional profile of 17 genes when compared to the acute 3 H LPS response, 6 of which were also upregulated in the midbrain by rHMGB1, highlighting a distinct signature of the persistent pro-inflammatory microglia phenotype. These findings indicate that circulating HMGB1 is elevated in GWI, regulates the microglial neuroimmune response, and drives chronic neuroinflammation that persists long after the initial instigating peripheral stimulus.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • HMGB1 Protein* / blood
  • Humans
  • Lipopolysaccharides
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Microglia
  • Persian Gulf Syndrome*
  • Phenotype
  • Veterans*


  • HMGB1 Protein
  • HMGB1 protein, human
  • Lipopolysaccharides