CHIT1-positive microglia drive motor neuron ageing in the primate spinal cord

Nature. 2023 Dec;624(7992):611-620. doi: 10.1038/s41586-023-06783-1. Epub 2023 Oct 31.


Ageing is a critical factor in spinal-cord-associated disorders1, yet the ageing-specific mechanisms underlying this relationship remain poorly understood. Here, to address this knowledge gap, we combined single-nucleus RNA-sequencing analysis with behavioural and neurophysiological analysis in non-human primates (NHPs). We identified motor neuron senescence and neuroinflammation with microglial hyperactivation as intertwined hallmarks of spinal cord ageing. As an underlying mechanism, we identified a neurotoxic microglial state demarcated by elevated expression of CHIT1 (a secreted mammalian chitinase) specific to the aged spinal cords in NHP and human biopsies. In the aged spinal cord, CHIT1-positive microglia preferentially localize around motor neurons, and they have the ability to trigger senescence, partly by activating SMAD signalling. We further validated the driving role of secreted CHIT1 on MN senescence using multimodal experiments both in vivo, using the NHP spinal cord as a model, and in vitro, using a sophisticated system modelling the human motor-neuron-microenvironment interplay. Moreover, we demonstrated that ascorbic acid, a geroprotective compound, counteracted the pro-senescent effect of CHIT1 and mitigated motor neuron senescence in aged monkeys. Our findings provide the single-cell resolution cellular and molecular landscape of the aged primate spinal cord and identify a new biomarker and intervention target for spinal cord degeneration.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers / metabolism
  • Cellular Senescence*
  • Chitinases* / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Microglia* / enzymology
  • Microglia* / metabolism
  • Microglia* / pathology
  • Motor Neurons* / metabolism
  • Neuroinflammatory Diseases / metabolism
  • Neuroinflammatory Diseases / pathology
  • Primates* / metabolism
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Single-Cell Gene Expression Analysis
  • Spinal Cord* / metabolism
  • Spinal Cord* / pathology


  • Biomarkers
  • Chitinases