Mechanisms underlying neural circuit remodeling in Toxoplasma gondii infection

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Virginia Tech


The central nervous system (CNS) is protected by a vascular blood-brain barrier that prevents many types of pathogens from entering the brain. Still, some pathogens have evolved mechanisms to traverse this barrier and establish a long-term infection. The apicomplexan parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, is one such pathogen with the ability to infect the CNS in virtually all warm-blooded animals, including humans. Across the globe, an estimated 30% of the human population is infected with Toxoplasma, an infection for which mounting evidence suggests increases the risk for developing neurological and neuropsychiatric disorders, like seizures and schizophrenia. In my dissertation, I investigate the telencephalic neural circuit changes induced by long-term Toxoplasma infection in the mouse brain and the neuroimmune signaling role of the complement system in mediating microglial remodeling of neural circuits following parasitic infection.

While there has been keen interest in investigating neural circuit changes in the amygdala – a region of the brain involved in fear response and which Toxoplasma infection alters in many species of infected hosts – the hippocampus and cortex have been less explored. These are brain regions for which Toxoplasma also has tropism, and moreover, are rich with fast-spiking parvalbumin perisomatic synapses, a type of GABAergic synapse whose dysfunction has been implicated in epilepsy and schizophrenia. By employing a range of visualization techniques to assess cell-to-cell connectivity and neuron-glia interactions (including immunohistochemistry, ultrastructural microscopy, and microglia-specific reporter mouse lines), I discovered that longterm Toxoplasma infection causes microglia to target and ensheath neuronal somata in these regions and subsequently phagocytose their perisomatic inhibitory synapses. These findings provide a novel model by which Toxoplasma infection within the brain can lead to seizure susceptibility and a wider range of behavioral and cognitive changes unrelated to fear response.

In the Toxoplasma infected brain, microglia, along with monocytes recruited to the brain from the periphery, coordinate a neuroinflammatory response against pathogenic invasion. This is characterized by a widespread activation of these cells and their increased interaction with neurons and their synaptic inputs. Yet, whether T. gondii infection triggers microglia and monocytes (i.e. phagocytes) to target, ensheath, and remove perisomatic inhibitory synapses on neuronal somata indiscriminately, or whether specificity exists in this type of circuit remodeling, remained unclear. Through a comprehensive assessment of phagocyte interactions with cortical neuron subtypes, I demonstrate that phagocytes selectively target and ensheath excitatory pyramidal cells in long-term infection. Moreover, coupling of in situ hybridization with transgenic reporter lines and immunolabeling revealed that in addition to phagocytes, excitatory neurons also express complement component C3 following infection (while inhibitory interneurons do not). Lastly, by employing targeted deletion of complement components, C1q and C3, I show that complement is required for phagocyte ensheathment of excitatory cells and the subsequent removal of perisomatic inhibitory synapses on these cells (albeit not through the classical pathway). Together, these studies highlight a novel role for complement in mediating synapse-type and cell-type specific circuit remodeling in the Toxoplasma infected brain.



Toxoplasma gondii, complement, inhibitory synapse, microglia, pyramidal neuron, parvalbumin interneuron