Brain innate immune response via miRNA-TLR7 sensing in polymicrobial sepsis

Brain Behav Immun. 2022 Feb;100:10-24. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2021.11.007. Epub 2021 Nov 19.


Sepsis-associated encephalopathy (SAE) occurs in sepsis survivors and is associated with breakdown of the blood-brain barrier (BBB), brain inflammation, and neurological dysfunction. We have previously identified a group of extracellular microRNAs (ex-miRNAs), such as miR-146a-5p, that were upregulated in the plasma of septic mice and human, and capable of inducing potent pro-inflammatory cytokines and complements. Here, we established a clinically relevant mouse model of SAE and investigated the role of extracellular miRNAs and their sensor Toll-like receptor 7 (TLR7) in brain inflammation and neurological dysfunction. We observed BBB disruption and a profound neuroinflammatory responses in the brain for up to 14 days post-sepsis; these included increased pro-inflammatory cytokines production, microglial expansion, and peripheral leukocyte accumulation in the CNS. In a battery of neurobehavioral tests, septic mice displayed impairment of motor coordination and neurological function. Sepsis significantly increased plasma RNA and miRNA levels for up to 7 days, such as miR-146a-5p. Exogenously added miR-146a-5p induces innate immune responses in both cultured microglia/astrocytes and the intact brain via a TLR7-dependent manner. Moreover, mice genetically deficient of miR-146a showed reduced accumulation of monocytes and neutrophils in the brain compared to WT after sepsis. Finally, ablation of TLR7 in the TLR7-/- mice preserved BBB integrity, reduced microglial expansion and leukocyte accumulation, and attenuated GSK3β signaling in the brain, but did not improve neurobehavioral recovery following sepsis. Taken together, these data establish an important role of extracellular miRNA and TLR7 sensing in sepsis-induced brain inflammation.

Keywords: Behavior; Cytokines; Encephalopathy; Extracellular RNA; IL-6; Innate immunity; MicroRNA; Neuroinflammation; Sepsis; TLR7.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Immunity, Innate
  • Membrane Glycoproteins
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • MicroRNAs* / genetics
  • MicroRNAs* / metabolism
  • Sepsis*
  • Toll-Like Receptor 7 / genetics
  • Toll-Like Receptor 7 / metabolism


  • Cytokines
  • Membrane Glycoproteins
  • MicroRNAs
  • Tlr7 protein, mouse
  • Toll-Like Receptor 7