Stress induces behavioral abnormalities by increasing expression of phagocytic receptor MERTK in astrocytes to promote synapse phagocytosis

Immunity. 2023 Sep 12;56(9):2105-2120.e13. doi: 10.1016/j.immuni.2023.07.005. Epub 2023 Jul 31.


Childhood neglect and/or abuse can induce mental health conditions with unknown mechanisms. Here, we identified stress hormones as strong inducers of astrocyte-mediated synapse phagocytosis. Using in vitro, in vivo, and human brain organoid experiments, we showed that stress hormones increased the expression of the Mertk phagocytic receptor in astrocytes through glucocorticoid receptor (GR). In post-natal mice, exposure to early social deprivation (ESD) specifically activated the GR-MERTK pathway in astrocytes, but not in microglia. The excitatory post-synaptic density in cortical regions was reduced in ESD mice, and there was an increase in the astrocytic engulfment of these synapses. The loss of excitatory synapses, abnormal neuronal network activities, and behavioral abnormalities in ESD mice were largely prevented by ablating GR or MERTK in astrocytes. Our work reveals the critical roles of astrocytic GR-MERTK activation in evoking stress-induced abnormal behaviors in mice, suggesting GR-MERTK signaling as a therapeutic target for stress-induced mental health conditions.

Keywords: GABAergic neuron; MERTK; astrocytes; childhood stress; early social deprivation; glucocorticoid receptor; mental health conditions; phagocytosis; synapse elimination.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Astrocytes* / metabolism
  • Child
  • Hormones / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Phagocytosis*
  • Stress, Psychological* / metabolism
  • Synapses / metabolism
  • c-Mer Tyrosine Kinase / genetics


  • c-Mer Tyrosine Kinase
  • Hormones
  • MERTK protein, human