Early-life stress lastingly impacts microglial transcriptome and function under basal and immune-challenged conditions

Transl Psychiatry. 2022 Dec 8;12(1):507. doi: 10.1038/s41398-022-02265-6.


Early-life stress (ELS) leads to increased vulnerability to psychiatric disorders including depression later in life. Neuroinflammatory processes have been implicated in ELS-induced negative health outcomes, but how ELS impacts microglia, the main tissue-resident macrophages of the central nervous system, is unknown. Here, we determined the effects of ELS-induced by limited bedding and nesting material during the first week of life (postnatal days [P]2-9) on microglial (i) morphology; (ii) hippocampal gene expression; and (iii) synaptosome phagocytic capacity in male pups (P9) and adult (P200) mice. The hippocampus of ELS-exposed adult mice displayed altered proportions of morphological subtypes of microglia, as well as microglial transcriptomic changes related to the tumor necrosis factor response and protein ubiquitination. ELS exposure leads to distinct gene expression profiles during microglial development from P9 to P200 and in response to an LPS challenge at P200. Functionally, synaptosomes from ELS-exposed mice were phagocytosed less by age-matched microglia. At P200, but not P9, ELS microglia showed reduced synaptosome phagocytic capacity when compared to control microglia. Lastly, we confirmed the ELS-induced increased expression of the phagocytosis-related gene GAS6 that we observed in mice, in the dentate gyrus of individuals with a history of child abuse using in situ hybridization. These findings reveal persistent effects of ELS on microglial function and suggest that altered microglial phagocytic capacity is a key contributor to ELS-induced phenotypes.

MeSH terms

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences*
  • Animals
  • Child
  • Child Abuse*
  • Dentate Gyrus / physiopathology
  • Hippocampus / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Microglia* / pathology
  • Phagocytosis
  • Synaptosomes
  • Transcriptome